Even before emergence of the novel coronavirus, San Francisco faced a hunger crisis, with one out of five residents at risk of being unable to afford a nutritious meal. Since March 16th, 2020—when shelter-in-place orders were first issued – that risk became a reality for many families.
According to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank’s Keely Hopkins, 55,000 households—48,500 in San Francisco—rely on Food Bank programs weekly, roughly double pre-COVID levels. The SF-Marin Food Bank distributed 40 million pounds of food monthly in 2019, compared to 60 million pounds today.
According to Katy Mann McKnight, SFMFB’s Director of Community Engagement for San Francisco, “most of the additional participants we are serving have never needed food assistance before.”
Many of the newly needy previously worked in the hospitality and food service industries. They’ll likely depend on the Food Bank for some time. It took California years to recover from the 2008 Recession. The pandemic’s impacts could reverberant even longer; it may take a decade before household income returns to previous levels for many Americans.
“It takes a really long time for hunger levels to go down,” said Lauren Lathan Reid, Director of Communications for the California Association of Food Banks (CAFB). “It’s not going to be over anytime soon.”
“For our food banks or for any of the people that rely on them. It’s going to be a long haul,” McKnight said. “We know that those we are serving are going to be the last to benefit when the economy begins to rebound, post-pandemic. And we’re starting to see an uptick in registrations right now, and we’re not sure if it is a one-time increase or if the new shelter-in-place is driving it.”
In the United States it’s rare to see people who are severely underweight as a result of poor food access. Instead, food insecurity takes the form of skipped meals and substitutions of healthier, but more expensive or perishable items like fresh produce, for products like instant noodles, or “junk” food. When such eating patterns become habitual, adverse physical responses can be triggered, from organ damage to hair loss. A person can be both malnourished and overweight.
Worry over food access can cause stress and anxiety. For children, these effects can linger long after the threat of hunger has passed. “Facing food insecurity is very scary,” said McKnight.
According to Reid, indoor dining restrictions shuttered soup kitchens, while food pantries, which tend to be staffed by older volunteers at greater risk for COVID-related complications, suspended operations. SF-Marin Food Bank lost about a third of its nearly 300 partners at the beginning of the pandemic. Normally, the Food Bank provides supplies to distributers, such as churches or community centers, who host food pantries or dining halls.
The nation’s first food bank was organized in Arizona in the 1960’s to reduce food waste and hunger. Food banks have historically collected unsold crops that’d otherwise be plowed under.
CAFB’s 42 members work with the State Department of Agriculture and individual farms through the Farmer to Family program, which provides fresh fruits, vegetables and other products directly from participating farmers. Roughly 60 percent of the food SFMFB distributes consists of fresh produce.
With the loss of on-the-ground distributors, SF-Marin Food Bank has ramped up its operations, providing direct service to the public.
“Instantaneously, we knew we were going to have to meet that need of those participants who had lost access to pantries as their source of food,” said McKnight. ‘We also knew that there was going to be an increase in demand above and beyond what we were already serving. So, our challenge was, how do we meet this need from start to finish as the Food Bank?”
One solution has been popup pantries, which appear six days a week at different San Francisco locations. According to McKnight, even without closure of partner agencies, the Food Bank would’ve needed to open up popups to meet increased demand. The popups differ from traditional pantries, which offered a grocery store or farmer’s market-type setup, in which individuals are free to roam and handle the food.
“We don’t want that many people touching the food,” McKnight explained, “so we have transitioned into pre-bagging all the groceries.” The method has the added benefit of serving people as quickly as possible. “We like to think of it as Henry Ford comes to the food bank.”
Each popup serves close to 900 households. “Our ability to scale has been amazing to watch.”
Drive-thru pantries operate out of Lot A at Oracle Park in Mission Bay on Fridays and Stonestown Mall on Tuesdays. “Our friends at the Giants and the Port of San Francisco have been really supportive,” said McKnight.
The Oracle Park pop-ups were started in part to counteract the lack of partnering agencies in the South-of-Market, Dogpatch and Mission Bay neighborhoods. “We know that there are areas in need there, so we were really excited to open up a couple of different options in conjunction with the Giants and the Port,” McKnight said.
According to Ruth Selby, Assistant Manager of Saint Anthony’s Dining Room in the Tenderloin, which has continued to provide daily lunch throughout the pandemic, most of the raw ingredients her kitchen uses to make hot takeout meals come from the Food Bank, which helped arrange a partnership with Starbucks to donate unsold pastries and sandwiches.
SFMFB offers contactless home delivery. Volunteer drivers bring bags of groceries to participants who are older, have COVID-related risk factors, or are unable to make it to a pantry.
The Food Bank specializes in providing participants with produce and other ingredients to prepare their own meals, but not everyone is able to cleanly and safely store and cook food. With the closure of soup kitchen-like services, as well as increased lines at those that continue to operate, SFMFB has pivoted to prepared meals, and ready-to-eat items. The Tenderloin Ellis Street popup features a “minimal cooking menu” tailored for the area’s unhoused people. It includes bottles of water for people without access to public water fountains in libraries and other buildings.
Thanita Adams, Manager of Saint Anthony’s Resource Center, said that their pantry has been providing weekly groceries and emergency food boxes to 734 unique guests since the start of the pandemic. The dining room serves lunch seven days a week, between 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
“If this is somebody’s one big meal of the day, we’re trying to serve them something that is nutritious and hardy and will warm the soul in these winter months,” said Selby, who noted that the meals are popular with construction workers.
Lunch for the day Selby spoke with the View was a vegetarian channa masala with rice. The day before it’d been carne asada tacos; the following day it was to be fish sticks with cheesy grits.
Guests, volunteers and staff alike lament the closing of the dining room, as it provided an important sense of community. Today, a physically distant area of tables and chairs is available outdoors for those who need to eat their food on-site. As Selby explained, this is considered a non-elective, essential, service, excluded from the municipal ban on outdoor dining.
CAFB partnered with the California Department of Social Services to provide packaged food lasting three to four days for eligible families. “It’s a Cal program,” said Reid, “but we do the execution. The State of California has been fantastic in responding to the hunger crisis and providing food to banks.
“Pre-pandemic,” McKnight said, “we needed about 12,000 volunteers a week. Now it’s more like 25,000.”
Volunteers are divided into three primary tasks: unloading and sorting donations from Farmer to Family and other donors, bagging groceries and helping with popup pantries, and delivery driving.
Warren Brown has volunteered with SFMFB since 2018, “but I’ve showed up a lot more this year,” he said, especially once the City started phasing out its Disaster Services Program, in which municipal employees whose offices were closed were paid to perform other duties. As Brown recalled, “there were a lot of library workers that were working at the Food Bank for months, but then the library workers started being able to go back to work in August and they started rolling out from the Food Bank work so more spots were available to the public.”
Brown volunteers primarily at the Illinois Street warehouse, transporting bags of carrots and potatoes from where they’ve been unloaded to tables to be packed into boxes.
“A lot of times you’re outside and that’s kind of nice,” he said. “It’s a really great environment to work in. And it just feels nice helping people. I’m very privileged not having to worry about where my food comes from and how much it costs, but even in normal times there are a lot of people for whom that isn’t the case. If I can get my groceries and not even think about it, I should be able to help other people get some food. I’m not a medical worker, I’m not an essential worker, so I can’t help people in that way, but I can at least do this. It’s a very gratifying thing to feel like I’m able to help during the pandemic when there are so many things that I’m not able to help with. I try to recommend it to all my friends and family.”