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.
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.