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San Francisco food pantries struggle to meet growing need

Tuesday mornings can get pretty crowded at Minnie and Lovie Ward Park in San Francisco’s Oceanview district. Up to 300 people of all ages stand or sit in front of the large recreation center, carrying shopping bags, baskets or rolling bags with wheels. They are here to pick up free produce and groceries. 

This food pantry is run by the OMI Family Resource Center. It serves the OMI: Oceanview, Merced Heights, and Ingleside neighborhoods in the southwest section of San Francisco. To receive food, people have to show proof of residency in the 94112, 94116, or 94132 zipcodes. 

Artrecia Thomas, who directs the pantry, says that the purpose of asking for zipcodes is that they can only serve a limited amount of people with the resources they have.  

“We can’t service the whole city, you know what I mean?” Thomas says. 

Last year San Francisco lost close to $600,000 in federal funding from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program. Around a quarter of that money came out of the San Francisco Food Bank’s budget. Under new guidelines, San Francisco as a city and county is no longer qualified. These new guidelines state that only counties under a certain level of poverty or unemployment are eligible for funding. If there is any city in a particular county that meets the criteria, then the whole county gets funding. For this reason, very few counties in California were actually eliminated, but San Francisco was one of those unlucky few.

This has had a huge impact on the San Francisco Food Bank, and the OMI Family Resource Center. Along with this major federal funding loss, private gifts and food donations have been down for the past couple of years. Even though there has actually been an increase in the need for food assistance, there is now less food to go around.

For the 211 food pantries in San Francisco, this has meant new organizational challenges, and a need for new strategies to meet growing need in the face of dwindling resources.

At Minnie and Lovie Ward Park, participants start lining up as early as 6am. They wait until 9:30am, when pantry volunteers begin handing out numbers, one to 300, in randomized order – even if you show up first, you could end up being last. A couple hours later, at 11:30am, the pantry opens up. A steady stream of people moves through the recreation center until 2 o’clock, filling their bags with produce, canned and dry goods. 

While the system for the most part runs smoothly, people can get competitive. “The majority of the people here really rely on this pantry, every Tuesday, so I know that it can get a little crazy sometimes, because they think they’re not gonna get anything this week,” reports Thomas. She says that cutting in line is a constant issue.
Another food pantry issue that has come to light recently is recipients going to multiple food pantries, making less food available for all. Last year, there were reports of elderly, mostly Chinese women, getting free groceries and then selling them on the street. Some see it as “gaming the system,” but it also shows just how hard it has gotten to make ends meet. 

Su Lam Li, a patron of the Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in Potrero Hill, says that for some Chinese seniors certain foods are seen as inedible, because of their ethnic and cultural background. Peanut butter, for example, is not part of a typical Chinese diet. She says she has told her neighbors to stop the practice of selling food. “Food’s supposed to be given away, not for sale,” she says.

Fresh, local, organic produce is being given away, not for sale, every Sunday at the Free Farm Stand in Parque de los Niños in the Mission District. The fruits and vegetables given out here are not from the Food Bank but come directly from local gardens and growers. Dennis Rubinstein, aka Tree, founded the Free Farm Stand less as a food pantry and more as an effort to create community, and to educate people about where their food comes from. 

“You know, I want things to be fun, and feeling less institutional. It’s really important for people to feel like they’re not so much in a program, but part of sharing. You know, get the idea that we’re all family, we’re all here sharing the surplus together,” Tree explains.

The Free Farm Stand had operated with a first-come, first-served line-up system for several years. Last fall, the lines became too long and unwieldy and neighbors complained. Now it uses a numbered ticket system to handle the crowds, and thus far it’s been working out. Tree says there is a lot less tension now than there was before the ticket system was in place.

This growing sense of overcrowding is being watched carefully by the San Francisco Food Bank, which supplies most of the food pantries in the city. Food Bank director Paul Ash says, “We have more and more working families coming to get food assistance. And you can see right there, competition.” He points out that working people can have a harder time just getting to a pantry, and they may have less time to wait in line than retired or unemployed people.

While the Food Bank does not control how individual pantries run, it does encourage policies that reduce the amount of time people have to spend in an actual line. For some, that can be proof of residency or membership with a group, like having kids in a particular school. But other pantries are not as selective.

Sara Miles, the director of The Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s Church, has kept her doors open to all comers for over a decade. Local fifth graders often volunteer to sort produce, and Miles says they are obsessed with justice, with wanting things to be fair. She says they ask her why some people have cell phones and cars and still receive food, and how she decides who really needs food and who doesn’t. She tells them: "Look, if I'm going to sell you the food, or if I'm going to make a trade with you, then it can be fair or unfair. But if I'm going to give it to you anyway, you can't take advantage of me." She says the kids think this is very cool. 

Still, St. Gregory’s pantry has also had to make changes to better serve the growing numbers of people in need. It now hands out blue- or red-colored cards that restrict people to getting food every other week, instead of every week. 

San Francisco Food Bank director Paul Ash says, “It is difficult to come up with a model that alleviates that sense of scarcity, because there is in fact scarcity.” The Food Bank is working on plans for a centralized registry to help with the issue of people going to multiple food pantries. 

Artrecia Thomas from the OMI Family Resource Center thinks this is a great idea. “I think we will be able to serve an even amount of people, and that way, everyone will get food,” she says.

Still, Tree from the Free Farm Stand cautions against too much regulation when it comes to feeding the hungry. He says that when it comes to who deserves food and who doesn’t, “You can’t really know that unless – I mean you can’t really know who’s in need.” 

No matter how need is determined, or what system is used to distribute the food, the fact remains that many people in this city, county, and country, are not getting the food they need to survive. The Food Bank’s Paul Ash says that is a real indicator of where we are as a society. 

He says, “The more people you have in lower-income groups, that are falling out of the system, who can’t afford a bank account, have credit card debt, who aren’t in the mainstream of society, who are going to food pantries for food assistance – that is a bad sign, and I don’t think it’s the right way for the United States to be moving.”

[Audio for this story will be available February 7 after 5pm PST]