A sanctuary with no judgment — that’s what Tania Estrada, the community programs director at the Women’s Building, calls their food pantry, established through a partnership with the SF-Marin Food Bank’s immigrant food assistance program. 

Estrada has worked at the Women’s Building for six years. She started as an intern, and began overseeing coordination of the food pantry two years ago. 

She shares that the two biggest populations their food pantry serves are Cantonese- and Spanish-speaking individuals. And they offer services in three languages total: Cantonese, Spanish and English. 

Unrelated to CalFresh or food stamps, registration for food pantry access is without restriction. All an interested individual needs to do is bring a form of identification and proof of residence in San Francisco, but even that’s not out-and-out required. 

“If they don’t have proof that they have an address because they don’t have stable housing, we waive that because obviously we don’t wanna give them any more restrictions than they already have, to have access to food,” says Kristen Acosta, the food pantry coordinator. 

Acosta adds, “When you sign up, you just get a card saying that you’re a food pantry participant.” The cards are color-coded; the colors determine what time you can shop at the food pantry. 

Those with CalFresh can still access the food pantry, and on Thursdays, a representative from the food bank comes to the Women’s Building to do free applications and screenings for the program. 

Estrada says this is “because immigrant families wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, because they will feel safe and protected about their rights, and also about the service that they were given without fear of anything, in terms of immigration.” 

The food available at the pantry, which is distributed by the food bank, is seasonal. Acosta says, “Whatever the farms have, it’s always seasonal. So, if it’s this month, we’ve got a lot of watermelons and honeydew, things like that, because that’s what they’re growing right now, which is awesome.”

“So, all of it is donations from food companies, or directly from farms as well. And it’s all of their leftovers, so whatever they’re able to donate to the food bank.”

Estrada includes, “We are giving good food. And also, it’s aimed for our communities. So, we can also request, like to the food bank, whatever our community sometimes needs the most or eats the most at their homes based on their cultures.” 

Set up like a farmer’s market, the food pantry operates every Monday from 9:10 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. It’s housed in a spacious events room on the first floor of the mural-adorned, historic building and there’s a line that stretches from the front. 

People in line wait to be checked in at the food pantry. Photo by Ashvini Malshe.

People sit in a queue to the side, waiting their turn. And the pantry’s 13 volunteers stay focused on their task, organizing and distributing the groceries in stock from the foldable tables that form a row at the front. 

This Monday, offerings included veggies like Brussels sprouts, carrots and potatoes. There were also non-perishable items like grains and large plastic jugs of juice placed further down the tables. 

According to Estrada, there are 130 families registered for the food pantry program, but those without a food pantry card are welcome to take whatever leftovers are available, starting at 9:55 a.m. 

Estrada says, “The majority of the community that we serve are very low income families and most of them are in high risk of either being evicted or becoming homeless.”

Volunteer Cecilia Aguirre distributes bunches of grapes at the food pantry, this Monday morning.

She continues, “The majority of them are making less than $20,000 per year and with that they live in San Francisco, and they have to pay for rent, food, school, everything.” 

The Women’s Building is at 3543 18th St., #8. For more information about food pantries available in SF and Marin counties, you can access the food pantry locator at https://www.sfmfoodbank.org/find-food/.