Seniors Bag Eats from Food Banks to Sell

The boxed packages that the women hold are labeled

The boxed packages that the women hold are labeled "Not for resale," which are commonly distributed by the S.F. Food Bank.

Visit the farmers market in downtown San Francisco on Sundays and you may see, past the stands of organic lettuce and fresh flowers, a few elderly women hunched over a random assortment of condiments and canned goods.

As security approaches, they quickly scatter, only to set up shop on the opposite corner a few moments later.

“It’s like throwing sand into the ocean, it just comes right back,” said Ken Hurst, security officer for the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market at UN Plaza.

According to several food pantries, elderly recipients of free food disbursements are turning around and selling the donations at various locations throughout the city. Those who work in the business of handing out food say that the practice is a sign of how bad the economy has gotten for seniors trying to survive in the city. Others agree, but add that at some food pantries the desperation has intensified the competition for food.

A woman selling food near UN Plaza acknowledged that she goes all over the city to pick up food at the pantries. She then sells the items to help make ends meet.

“We don’t get enough money for rent or for daily use,” said one woman who was selling food donations she had picked up earlier. The elderly woman spoke through an interpreter and asked to remain anonymous.

Enicia Montalvo, who runs the Salvation Army’s food pantry on Valencia Street, said it’s no secret that people are abusing the system. Other pantries in the Mission area concur, including La Dispensia at St. Anthony’s Church and the food pantry at Mission Presbyterian Church. All say they have seen a group of people who they suspect of reselling food visiting their organizations on a regular basis.

But the San Francisco Food Bank’s media manager, Stacy Newman, downplays the extent of the problem.

“This is a small percentage of the people who receive our food,” said Newman, who puts the figure at less than 1 percent.

Christine Adams, who has managed the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, has seen the problem slowly grow over the past few years. At first one or two people would set up near the market; now it’s eight or so every week, she said.

The alleged perpetrators are often elderly women who appear to work as a team, said Edgar Mercado, an employee at the Office of Self Help on Market Street in San Francisco. He sees them set up shop every Wednesday and Sunday right outside his office building.

“They seem organized,” said Mercado. He said they work together to beat out other recipients, some of whom are his clients at the Office of Self Help.

“Some of my clients complain that by the time they get inside there’s nothing left,” he said.

Montalvo agrees.

She’s observed some of the people she suspects of reselling food lining up hours before her pantry opens.  She also believes these same people are registering with several food banks, a practice not condoned by her office.

But some believe that the food may be coming from other sources. Ling Liang, senior program manager for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, argues that most of the food being sold in and around UN Plaza comes from the monthly packages they distribute to more than 11,000 recipients in San Francisco.

Liang is familiar with the some of the women in question and recognizes some of the products from her program. Her office has removed certain violators and tried to explain the illegality of reselling food, but it doesn’t seem to deter some of the women.

“In their mind, it’s their livelihood,” said Liang.

Newman disapproves of the practice, but empathizes with their situation.

“The same people selling the food are the same people who need the assistance. They’re selling peanut butter for 75 cents, not filling up their Mercedes,” she said.

According to Newman, formal complaints have been filed with police, and recipients caught reselling food are removed from the program, but she warned that excessive policing of recipients could alienate the people they’re trying to help — a sentiment Montalvo also expressed.

“We’re not spies,” said Montalvo.

Aside from collecting recipients’ signatures, which is required by the USDA, the food bank has no set regulations for pantries, allowing them to accept clients at their own discretion. However, some pantries require proof of address and wage earnings, as is the case for the Salvation Army.

The food bank is currently in communication with pantries and is looking into options for curtailing the abuse, which include piloting a new centralized database and enrollment system in the coming year.

25 Comments

  1. ……My dad had a conversation with a church in the Mission district that was giving out food. ALL of the recipients in line were Cantonese seniors. The church thought they were doing a good job until they realized that people were coming back for seconds in a same day. In the following week, they required people to register their names in order to get food, guess what…ALL of those Cantonese seniors disappeared and never came back…. (Edited Comment)

  2. The Caring Place in Georgetown, TX (http://www.caringplacetx.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=51&Itemid=69)is governed by a Board of Directors and members (local churches, civic organizations, and businesses) and is staffed by six full-time paid professionals as well as over 270 volunteers. Consolidation of donations, services, and facilities reduces redundancy and cost per client served.

  3. WOW I NEVER THOUGHT…PEOPLE NOW ADAYS ARE TO MUCH INDEED…

  4. Jenna

    My husband and I give several hundred dollars a year to our local food bank. I really don’t want to give our hard earned money away to these dishonest people. I don’t like that the people can get away with this so easily. How are they any different than the people that signed up for special benefits after the San Bruno gas line blast? Those people went to jail. I think these greedy people should go to jail to. …..

    • Candace

      I think there is a difference between thieves who are rich and stealing, like the banks taking our tax money for their failure, oil company making tonnes… then the thieves that could be working, but choose to steal. Then the seniors with very little job opportunities who aren’t well off selling their food. I’ve seen quite a few elder Chinese looking folks collecting cans. Now that’s not something that a rich person would bother to do, right?
      You are right that they are dishonest, but consider their situation that they may be in. Because there is a huge difference compared to other folks doing dishonest things.

      • Dean McClean

        The people going through the recycle bins are also breaking the law…The content of the bins is supposed to be used to lower the garbage bills of SF residents..I look out the window at night and see mostly Chinese immigrants going into the bins and taking what they want…It’s gotten so bad that now they are going through the garbage cans,Jeez,,,,

  5. RA

    Shameful, these programs are set up so that hungry people can EAT! not for people to use as a way to make money. If they have the time to stand around in line for food for hours on end and then stand around selling the free food, then they have time to make “ends meet” legally.

  6. nandro

    You can call it “making ends meet” but really they are profiting off a food donation program. When you sell something and make more than it cost you ($0 in this case), you are profiting. So these gals go all over town picking up free food for the poor and selling it. I think they need to be arrested and scared straight. I’m sure their not bad people but its kind of unacceptable.

  7. nandro

    Good example of the chronic plague of social programs and socialism in all its forms. There will always be a minority of unscrupulous people that try take advantage and abuse it. As long as its a tiny percentage, the programs can work. But past a certain point it brings down the whole system.

  8. Jen

    Shelters should get a few volunteers to take pictures of those selling food and distribute them to all the shelters.

  9. Unemployed Dragon

    I’ve long suspected this when I see incredibly long lines at some of the food banks, or the large groups that get on the bus with huge bags of food, in the Mission who obviously don’t live there. The food banks need to get organized to prevent this kind of thing from occurring. Require ID with a zip code specific to that food bank. Maybe require some sort of stamp in the hand or something.
    Why is is so consistently groups of Asian women? Why do we see this in this ethnic group?

  10. SFNative

    These women are no more than common thieves.

  11. SFStyler

    The city should create an ordinance the requires food bank have a distribution requirement with verified city identification card. In those of need, should be served at best with accountability that the beneficiary don’t violate the terms and condition of provided services. Automatic ban if they do…typical scenario of people screwing it up for everyone.

  12. Caffiend

    Maybe affix canned and bottled goods with permanent stickers reading “XXX Food Bank – Not for Resale”? It won’t put a complete stop to the practice, but better document what’s going on.

  13. Patrick Schiller-Nunes

    The people on here making these ridiculous, lack of empathy comments should be ashamed of themselves. Did they not read the entire article?

    “The same people selling the food are the same people who need the assistance. They’re selling peanut butter for 75 cents, not filling up their Mercedes,” she said.

    I just hope someday you are not in the same situation and people treat you as the comments you leave.

  14. conn

    Another example of the USA becoming an undeveloping nation. The other example today is the article on shipping containers being used as stores. The 1st time I saw that was in the slums of South Africa. Are we far behind?

  15. AB

    These old ladies are struggling to make ends meat. Many of them live in tiny SRO’s and are helping to take care of other family members. Have a heart.

    • nandro

      oh ok so then its fine for them to steal food from the pantry… how about disability fraud? Should we allow them to bill false medical statements as well to help make ends meet?

      Where do you draw the line on when its OK to rip-off government and charity services for the poor and when its Not OK? If you are poor than it is simply OK? So welfare fraud would be fine since most of the welfare “queens” so to speak are actually poor….

      This is just plain and simple the corruption of a charitable program. Not to be condoned.

  16. Jack

    Stealing is stealing. Those of you that excuse stealing because someone is trying to make ends meet should throw open the doors to your house and allow these people to pick through your possessions.

  17. Teva

    Considering the likelihood that many of these women survived the Great Chinese Famine, Cultural Revolution, or other sociopolitical catastrophes—far worse than ours—by their wits alone, one at least begins to comprehend, if not condone, their behavior.

  18. bob

    from what i can see, this story is purely entertainment intention. you folks, dont take it personal. there is no evil, and let it be. THIS nothing new. HAPPENED CENTURIES AGO. hope JUAN GOMEZ FIND NEW STUFF TO WRITE, NOT RECYCLED BACK ALLEY GOSSIPS.

  19. Juli

    San Francisco is outrageously priced, even during the middle of a recession. And seniors like that can’t easily relocate to a part of the state with cheaper rent (they’d essentially have to leave California to find cheaper rent).
    I wouldn’t donate to the food bank (let our bloated Dept of Agriculture distribute food stamps), but perhaps efficient food kitchen meals. But at the same time, that is a really inefficient way of drumming up money for an electric bill so it’s hard to criticize.

  20. Candace

    Let’s face it times are hard for many(somethings that people deny until they can’t find jobs themselves). And we all have basic needs like food and housing, then a way to make our lives worth living is also important for mental health. I’ve no idea of those seniors’ needs who are reselling produce. But I know for a fact that financial assistance to the elders aren’t always adequate. Many still past their retiring age, and not everyone have able bodies. It is a big social problem.

  21. “There’s class warfare, all right, Mr. (Warren) Buffett said, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

    “There has been class warfare going on,” Buffett, 81, said in a Sept. 30 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.”

    With time and as an ever-growing percentage of the common folks end up face down in an economic mire with the worthy folks, the ruling elites, corporate USA, etc. perched upon their backs and the longed-for oligarchy/plutocracy attained may it be you and/or your kinfolk supporting the worthy ones above you.

    “There’s class warfare, all right, Mr. (Warren) Buffett said, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

    “There has been class warfare going on,” Buffett, 81, said in a Sept. 30 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.”

    Sadly, the Occupy/99 per center “movement” will result in no meaningful change(s).

    I am convinced my decades of study and research that indicates no meaningful change of any form can occur within the USA unless the effort is led by a full-scale military coup that dismantles the multitude of existing institutions and recreates them for the good of We, the people.

    Voting, especially at the federal level, is futile.

    Protest is futile.

    Even if mega-millions of USA citizens/denizens took to the streets nothing will change.

    The entrenched forces, bureaucracies, systems and institutions are simply too immense, too powerful for the citizen-sheep to alter.

    Look at USA history. The ruling class and their minions will use multiple methods to stop the revolt long before it comes to a head.

    Murder, even mass murder is an acceptable technique to the rulers.

    Things in general are gonna’ get bad, folks.

    Not mentioned is the additional problems brought about as WW 2 is increasingly left behind and world affairs have increasing influence upon USA internal problems.

    Get used to living a 3rd-world life-style unless thou art one of the small percentage of the proper socio-economic class or a minion lackey pawn of the ruling masters.

  22. ems

    In Asian culture, asking for or receiving help is shameful and looked down upon. These ladies are swallowing their pride attempting to make ends meet for their families.

    Highly doubtful their 0.75cent profit are being spent frivolously. How petty is $1 to each of us per day?

    Would you rather have them not go hungry but eat on the streets because they can’t afford rent? I’ve seen the living conditions in SRO’s and it’s not pretty.

    Have compassion, stop picking on them, they ARE the needy, go after the 99%.

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