Catherine Villanueva stands outside a black-barred gate at the Episcopal Church of Saint John. She has been here for half an hour and it’s now 10 a.m. — the hour the gate should open to let dozens of people into the Julian Pantry, a food bank serving the Mission since 2008.
Instead, the gate remains closed and Villanueva, like the dozens of others waiting outside on Julian near 15th Street, is getting anxious.
Villanueva and her three friends start speaking loudly in Cantonese. A woman wearing a pink sweater approaches the gate with the keys. As she tries to open it, a co-worker approaches her from behind. “Not yet,” says the woman who turns out to be the gatekeeper. Here that means making sure the church doesn’t get overcrowded and that people with disabilities get to the food first.
Villanueva and others start screaming in broken English: “Why hasn’t the door open yet?” The gatekeeper retreats without answering and without opening the door.
Inside, Julian Pantry organizer Claire Dietrich understands what it means to be anxious about food. “Lines are getting longer; we used to feed 100 families, now we are feeding 300…. Sometimes we run out of food, so we have to give everyone a little.”
When more families started to arrive after the economic meltdown of 2008, Dietrich and her staff became concerned. Just as the lines started to increase, the food rations decreased, she said. Frustration grew because people couldn’t get enough to feed their families.
Villanueva watches as a man approaches from inside the gate.
“Come on, dude! Open the door!” Villanueva screams.
“I don’t have the key,” he says.
“Get the key!” Villanueva says as he walks away.
Villanueva turns to me. “The line is waiting,” she says and points to the hundred others behind her.
The increasing number of hungry forced new ideas at the Julian Pantry. One, from Dietrich’s sister, was to produce and sell organic honey. She and a friend followed through, selling jars of honey they cultivate from their backyard beehives on Potrero Hill.
“Last Christmas we got a check for $3,500 for selling $10 bottles of honey,” Dietrich says. “That’s one-third of our annual budget.”
The rest comes from the San Francisco Food Bank. “This helped us keep up with the demand,” Dietrich says.
The pantry attracts residents from all over the city, Dietrich says, but most come from the Mission and Chinatown. Villanueva comes from the SRO next door.
Dietrich doesn’t care where they come from. “We want to help people who needed it the most.”
Outside, the woman with the pink sweater again approaches the gate where Villanueva and others are waiting. “Sorry, I thought someone had opened,” she says as she’s again interrupted by the gatekeeper.
Villanueva confronts the gatekeeper and asks why others inside appear to be going through a back door.
“Disabled have priority,” the gatekeeper says.
“I am disable!” Villanueva says pulling out a white piece of paper from her pocket.
The gatekeeper looks at it. No, it’s not an ID for the disabled. “You wait,” she says.
“I am disable! I am disable!” Villanueva screams. She then pulls out her wallet and looks for an ID. The gatekeeper returns and decides to open the door. “OK, you all can go in.”
Villanueva smiles. She pulls a white plastic bag from her pockets and walks inside.
She goes from table to table like a kid going trick-or-treating. She holds out her white plastic bag and others drop in tomato soup, yogurt, potatoes, yams, cauliflower and other vegetables. Her plastic bag fills with food. Her smile gets bigger.
“Great thing,” she says about the pantry. “Good food. I like. I come next week.”