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Not just the homeless rely on San Francisco's food banks

Arriba Juntos

The San Francisco and Marin Food Banks provide food to 225,000 people each year through different food programs – one of these is their food pantry program. Seventeen percent of the people the food banks serve are homeless. The rest are low-wage workers, older adults, children and the unemployed. The food for the food pantry program is distributed by 230 local pantries in the area, including a small neighborhood organization in San Francisco’s Mission district every Thursday.

Every week on Mission Street at 15th Street, a long line of more than 100 people wraps around a tall brick building. Most have gray hair. Some are younger. Some sit, but most are standing. Most in line are from the neighborhood, but some took a bus to get here, and they’re all in line for one thing: food.

One woman has been standing in line with her husband for nearly an hour already. They have a ticket with them – number 207. It’s their place in line for today. The couple moved to San Francisco from Russia nearly 20 years ago.

The woman asked me not to use her name. In fact, even when I turned my recorder off she wouldn’t give me her first name. She was embarrassed about her English, but she was also embarrassed about standing in line for food.

he food is distributed by a neighborhood organization called Arriba Juntos, meaning “upwards together” in Spanish. It’s been feeding this neighborhood through its food pantry program since 2004.

It starts with a volunteer who keeps the lengthy line in order and lets 30 people at a time through a gate into a parking lot between two buildings. This is where the food is handed out. The line starts moving around 8am.

Neighborhood residents who want food have to get a food bank ID card in advance. They have to show a picture ID – any picture ID – and provide an address or zip code of residence. ArribaJuntos also collects demographic information to track its clients, like family size, race and ethnicity and self-disclosed income.

About 300 people come to wait in line for food every Thursday. Many of them take food home for more than just themselves. Arriba Juntos program director, Marilyn Bunag says that in January alone, Arriba Juntos fed 3,750 people through its food pantry program.

“I think it just speaks of the need that people are lacking the basic necessities of food,” Bunag says. The food comes from the San Francisco Food Bank – canned goods, meat, eggs, but mostly fresh produce. Bunag says the most popular days are the days when there is chicken.

After the line begins to move, I come across two Salvadorian women standing near the line, chatting. They are both grandmothers, both long-time residents of the neighborhood. I introduce myself but they don’t want to share their names.

One of them tells me it’s better not to be associated with waiting in line for food. As we talk, her friend tells me she came at 5am this morning to wait. She arrived before the sun was up and when she got here, she wasn’t the first. She points to her four-wheeled cart, which she left in her space in line. It’s stuffed with empty bags to fill with food. For them this is about food, but it’s also social. The two women catch up, talk about family, home. They also talk about how the line used to be. They’ve been coming since the food pantry first began at Arriba Juntos. They talk about the people who wait in the line and how the neighborhood has changed. People come from all over, they tell me, but it’s a different group now. There used to be fewer people, more Latin Americans and less Chinese.

According to the San Francisco Food Bank, Arriba Juntos food pantry recipients are nearly 50 percent Asian. One third are Latino and the rest are mostly African-American and Russian. Only five percent are white. Today, I talk with immigrants from China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, China, Jordan, India and Russia – as well as non-immigrant San Franciscans.

As the morning continues, the line moves slowly but doesn’t seem to get any shorter. Closer to the front, I meet Al and Carol. They arrived around 8am. Al is a Vietnam vet with a bad hip and has been coming here for a couple months now, since he moved to a housing block for vets down the street. Carol’s the cook, and his girl, she says. Al stands up to show me his cart, leaning on it for support. It doubles as a seat.

“You’re supposed to live in this area…but a lot of these people is not in this area. They come from all over the city,” Al says.

This is a concern for the San Francisco Food bank. It happens at some pantries around the city and its difficult to control. As a policy, the bank encourages people to find a food pantry within their own neighborhood. But it can be tough for organizations like Arriba Juntos to turn people away when they need services.

People who have already received their food come out from the back of the building. A few of them make their way to the front where people still wait. Seeing people emerge with food lifts the energy on the crowded sidewalk. There’s still more for the taking.

I find another woman who’s with her elderly mother. She’s come just to support her mom, but she’s a little uncomfortable with the idea of standing in line for food.

“I never thought I would see this in my lifetime, standing in line with my parents to get food. It doesn’t make me feel well. But at least it’s available to people who need it,” she says.

The food line finally dwindles around 10am. I see one of the Salvadorian women again. She’s finally near the front of the line now and waves to me to show me how close she is. She’s happy for another week of food until she comes to wait again next week.

Sarah Reynolds is an independent radio producer. You can find more of her work here