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Helping Fight Food Insecurity, One Bag At A Time

Elisabeth Fall
SF-Marin Food Bank
Volunteers pack grocery bags at a San Francisco-Marin Food Bank pop-up pantry.

Food pantries are a lifeline for many in San Francisco and Marin but hundreds had to close last year due to social distancing rules. In this edition of our @WORK series, we speak to the program manager behind SF-Marin Food Bank's outdoor pop-up pantries.

Before the pandemic, SF-Marin Food Bank supplied hundreds of food pantries across San Francisco and Marin. They were small affairs, usually located in neighborhood spaces like church halls and community centers where you could pick up the groceries you needed.

But COVID-19 rules around social distancing and shelter-in-place meant that model had to change.

Ellen Garcia, program manager at SF-Marin Food Bank, says: “We had many thousands of participants whose pantries were run by volunteers indoors. And the staff of the organizations that ran them felt there was no way to do so safely and they closed.”

Garcia is a nutrition consultant and teacher. For the past six years, she’s worked with SF-Marin Food Bank visiting schools, senior centers, and SRO hotels to help people make the most of their pantry produce.

But once shelter-in-place began, the classes were canceled and Ellen was reassigned. It became her job to get food to the people and the neighborhoods that needed it most. The solution? Pop-up pantries. 

Garcia explains: “They're public spaces that are outdoors, basically, and some privately owned spaces that we're allowed to use. For example, we use the parking lot at Bayview Opera House. But we're outside, we set up an assembly line of groceries and I sort of think of it like catering a picnic, except instead of giving away a plate of food to a line of people, we give away a bag of groceries.”

Garcia remembers the first day of the first pop-up near Balboa Park in San Francisco. “We were allowed to set up on the street, outside of Denman Middle School, not inside, not in the parking lot, on the street. 

“And our delivery truck came and dropped a bunch of ingredients, and we set them up in an assembly line, and bagged these groceries and outreached to pantry participants to come and pick up their food here.” 

That first day proved to be the model for the food bank’s pop-up pantry program, which now operates at 27 outdoor locations across San Francisco and Marin. Most now attract five to 10 times the numbers seen at pantries pre-pandemic.

The Mission High School pantry distributes around 500 bags each Tuesday. Garcia says many participants are people who lost their jobs in local restaurants or food businesses, and don’t have access to other kinds of food assistance.

The lines outside these pop-up pantries are testament to the need. Garcia says: “We would show up at 7:30 in the morning at some of these places like Cow Palace and there would be 200 people there already. And if you show up to wait, possibly four hours for a bag of potatoes, um, you really need that help.”

Each pop-up operates one day a week. You can sign up in advance for a pick-up location and time. But walk-ins are also welcome. 

Garcia has noticed that each pantry location has its own distinct challenges and needs. “In Chinatown, a lot of our participants are mostly senior participants; we have to be so careful about the distancing.”

And there are also cultural sensitivities to think about because people are coming from all over the world and have different traditions of what they're used to using.

Garcia says it takes 30-60 people to make each pop-up happen, including staff, volunteers and truck drivers. It’s a new challenge for the food bank which had never directly run pantries before. 

Almost a year since the pop-ups began, they now serve 60,000 households each week. Volunteer numbers have doubled to 2,000 a week to keep up with this demand.

Garcia wishes the program did not have to exist but is happy that she’s making a difference: “I'm just incredibly grateful to have an opportunity to do something useful.”

The nonprofit Feeding America estimates one in six households nationally is in need of food. Increasing food aid is anearly priority of the Biden administration. But in the meantime, pop-up pantries will continue for as long as people don’t have enough food. And we need to stay six feet apart.

Liza Ramrayka is a freelance social justice journalist based in San Francisco and originally from England.