Most Thursday mornings at 8 a.m., after her husband has taken their daughter to school, Zsuzsanna Legradi leaves her apartment at 18th and Guerrero streets to get groceries.
Across the street, Tartine Bakery is already full of people sipping bowls of coffee and eating buttery croissants for breakfast.
Legradi, her husband, Tom Stolmar, and their 12-year-old daughter live on 18th Street, just steps away from some of the Mission’s most popular restaurants and the Bi-Rite Market, but they can’t afford any of these places.
As the neighborhood turned into a gourmet destination in the 1990s and prices of food and real estate soared, the couple lost their jobs, and now find themselves barely able to make ends meet.
Now Legradi’s family depends on free grocery handouts at the food bank.
Their story is not singular. The median household income in 61.5 percent of Mission District census areas is less than $71,304 a year — the city’s median income. The nationwide median income is $51,914, according to census documents.
For Legradi’s family, city life is distinctly different than for those with money to burn.
Shopping cart in tow, Legradi walks down 18th Street, past Farina restaurant.
It’s raining but Legradi doesn’t seem to mind; it could mean that the lines won’t be as long at the food bank.
She walks past new restaurants and shops on Valencia Street and makes her way to Arriba Juntos on Mission and 15th streets to stand in line.
In a typical month, the family now earns a little over $2,000.
In San Francisco, 11.9 percent of residents are considered below poverty level, which means they earn less than $22,113; nationwide, the percentage is 13.8.
“We live month to month,” Legradi says as she goes over February’s accounts: $2,072 in income minus $2,068 in expenses. That means that after everything is paid — including $1,400 a month for rent — the family is left with only $4.
It wasn’t always like this.
Stolmar, 50, is a trained carpenter, and Legradi, 44, is a cook-turned-gardener. They both held regular jobs until 2008. Then the loans stopped coming in at the construction company they both worked for and the owner had to let them go.
They were both contractors and didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits, so they relied on savings.
Stolmar had been working on a novel for several years when he lost his job. He decided to use his free time to finish it while also looking for a job. But their savings dwindled and after a while he couldn’t focus on writing anymore.
Getting a new job became crucial, but it wasn’t easy.
Although he takes on repair jobs here and there, Stolmar is still barely employed. When he does work, it’s a reminder of his own situation: in construction, you work amid money, Stolmar said. “You build [houses] and you’re at good at it, but you could never buy one.”
Nevertheless, he’s used his skills to make their rented apartment better, by sanding and varnishing the wooden floors, painting the walls and renovating the bathroom.
For her part, Legradi has started a gardening business and developed a steady network of clients. It doesn’t pay enough, but they’ve managed to keep their two-bedroom apartment so far.
The couple, who have been together for 21 years, moved into their 18th Street apartment in 1997. They had roommates at the time and shared the $1,200-a-month rent that rent control has kept to $1,400 a month. Recently, a similar apartment in the building rented for $3,500.
They’ve learned to pick up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet.
Legradi bakes cookies for weekend bake sales, when the weather allows.
“They call us the other Tartine,” Stolmar jokes, explaining that they set up across the street from the popular bakery.
Legradi and Stolmar also pick up used furniture left on the street.
“He fixes the furniture, I make cookies and Sophie sells,” Legradi says, referring to her daughter, Sophia.
She usually lets her daughter invite a friend and she gives them a little bit of money instead of an allowance. Whatever else they make goes toward rent.
With the bake sales, the gardening and the odd jobs, they’ve been able to keep going.
The third week of the month is the most stressful, because that’s when they wonder if all the payments they’re waiting on will come in time to make the rent. After paying rent in February, they had $4 left in the bank.
The family found that food was the easiest expense to cut, Legradi says as she stands in line at the food bank on a recent Thursday.
Even with a short line, people still try to cut in to make sure they get food.
Indeed, while we wait, two people walk up to Legradi and try to tell people behind her that they’re together.
She smiles and tells the people in line no, the man isn’t her husband and she doesn’t know the woman either. She’s polite but firm. She’s waited two hours in line on some visits only to discover that no food remained.
This time, in a little under one hour she’s made her way to tables full of produce and dry goods.
She opens her reusable shopping bag as volunteers hand her three stalks of broccoli, a restaurant-size can of peaches, six cans of diced tomatoes, 12 potatoes, a flat of lemon yogurt and two loaves of Acme bread.
She most looks forward to the bread because she knows her family likes it.
“It’s a little stale, but I found that if you slice it and freeze it, then toast it before you eat it, it tastes good,” she says.
The volunteer hands her one stalk of celery and asks if she wants a second one. She politely says no because she doesn’t want it to go to waste.
Legradi is one of approximately 1,000 people who receive free food from the food bank each week.
She’s originally from a suburb of Budapest, Hungary. She went to culinary school and learned how to cook traditional Hungarian dishes.
She’s now learned to cook with ingredients she gets at the food bank — things like hot and sour soup and egg rolls with cabbage and carrots.
Sometimes she’s able to get oatmeal and flour. She has used these ingredients to make cookies for the bake sales.
The food she gets at the food bank represents about a fourth of her family’s monthly food bill.
Five years ago, she applied for food stamps but was told that her household income was too high.
According to CalFresh, the program that hands out food stamps in San Francisco, the maximum income for a family of three to qualify is $2,008 per month or $24,096 per year. Although her family made less than that in March, Legradi says that because their income fluctuates, she doesn’t think they would qualify.
At first she worried about people seeing her at the food bank, but she’d rather save money than care about what people might think. Stolmar doesn’t like to come, and that sometimes makes her mad.
Once Legradi’s bags are full, she walks to Julian Avenue, where some people have chosen to leave behind groceries they don’t want — celery stalks and containers of yogurt lie on the ground for anyone to pick up. After they get the food, people often trade items right outside Juntos Arriba, she says.
The rain has stopped and Legradi says she’s glad her husband is working right now, even if it’s only for a short while. The rain has slowed her own work.
“If Tom wasn’t working right now, I’d be very anxious,” she says.
Legradi knows exactly how much is in her bank account at all times. Right now, a few days away from the middle of the month, there’s $99.