On the morning of Monday, March 16, 2020, hours before the commencement of a multi-county shelter-in-place order, the then La Raza Community Resource Center Executive Director Melba Maldonado was preparing for the center’s free-food distribution program. At the time, the center fed about 150 registered families.
A week later, the number of families asking for food doubled. “Then the next thing you know, we had, like, 500 people around the block,” Maldonado said of the following week. “We had so many people that even neighbors started complaining.”
“It was a baptism by fire,” she said. “We had to figure everything out by ourselves.”
By summer, they would be overwhelmed.
So were others. One week after the announcement began, employees at the Women’s Building saw lines increase by at least 50 percent, and lines grew at a similar pace at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Moreover, access to food from some nonprofits and at public schools had been shuttered by the lockdown.
The impending wave of hunger would incite serious change. As schools closed, Jennifer LeBarre, the executive director of student nutrition services for San Francisco Unified School District, quickly formed a first-ever “Grab & Go” program at 18 schools.
“Panic is a good way to put it, LeBarre said. “You saw the food insecurity within months. All of it just pancaked on top of those families.”
Meanwhile, individuals in the neighborhood took matters into their own hands. It was March, 2020, when Roberto Hernández picked up the phone and heard someone crying. The woman on the other end explained she had lost her job, but still had to provide for five grandchildren and her daughter. “My heart sunk,” Hernández said.
He ventured to the Grocery Outlet on South Van Ness Avenue and grabbed a bag of groceries for her on his own dime. “And that was the beginning.”
His phone started blowing up over the next week with other meal requests. Nearly everyone he intercepted had no income and didn’t know how to access unemployment, or didn’t qualify. Hernández recruited 113 volunteers who agreed to sponsor families desperate for food, and together they purchased bags of rice and beans in bulk that Hernández distributed from his garage.
But he knew that model wouldn’t work long-term, especially as the number of families seeking aid grew tenfold. So Hernández, who runs Carnaval each year, turned to previous Carnaval funders and convinced them to donate money. By then he was also part of the Latino Task Force, and the empty warehouse at 701 Alabama St. became available and had the capacity to keep up with the thousands of families arriving weekly. He added a fridge to store 4,800 gallons of milk there. But as he’d soon learn, the demand would only grow.
“Word got out,” he told Mission Local.
A few streets over in the north Mission near 18th Street, Roberto Eligio Alfaro had just reopened HOMEY SF from its two-week shelter-in-place hiatus. The organization was geared toward youth empowerment, and had never distributed food before. But Alfaro realized that the youth HOMEY served, and their parents, needed more basic help. So Alfaro decided to learn how to acquire and distribute food — fast.
He hopped on the phone and called anyone who might know how to get food for the participants: Father Richard Smith, farmers and ranchers, other food volunteers. He studied leaders at Mission Housing and La Raza Community Resource Center to see how they operated their pantries.
By April, a teacher at Hilltop High School offered to donate 20 bags of food to the nonprofit; then HOMEY struck a deal with Pie Ranch, a food and farm education center founded in 2002 by three people, including Karen Heisler, a former co-owner of Mission Pie. The ranch, which quickly pivoted in March to help supply fresh produce to those in need, offered to supply about 50 bags of food to HOMEY. Alfaro rounded up staff who would deliver these bags to HOMEY families on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“People kept calling us and heard we were delivering food and said, ‘could I get on the list?’ So the program started taking off,” Alfaro recalled.
By May, Pie Ranch had secured a grant through the United States Department of Agriculture, which gave Alfaro a few more bags. Then a HOMEY staff member who delivered food realized his roommate, Lorena Melgarejo, the executive director of the organization Faith in Action Bay Area (FIA), was also delivering food to families; the organizations teamed up, allowing them to launch a joint public pantry at HOMEY’s site on Saturdays. In these early weeks, the pantry offered whatever scraps and produce were donated: potatoes, onions. One passerby received a whole box of oranges. “They were like ‘Really?’” Alfaro laughed. “They walked away so happy. It was hilarious.”
May 23, 2020, was the first try — 16 bags. The following Saturday, bags increased to 25. “It felt like the multiplication of loaves and fishes in the Bible story,” Melgarejo said. More and more food and workforce arrived.
“Then, after that,” Alfaro said, “We met Janna.”
Janna Cordeiro was the fairy godmother of food. Her work at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market (SF Market), food pharmacy clinics, and other smaller community pantries over the years had cemented her spot in the local produce world, and this reputation eventually led to a pandemic proposition from the Department of Public Health in April.
It turned out the city had $1.65 million in soda tax funds to be put toward Covid-19 relief. Was Cordeiro up for using $400,000 to scale up efforts with local produce companies and farmers so food pharmacies and community groups could pass out more food?
“I had no idea how, but I just said, ‘yes,’” Cordeiro said.
By summer, she had matched the market’s produce companies with several community groups to distribute culturally-appropriate food throughout San Francisco, including Dr. Misa Perron-Burdick (a Bernal Heights obstetrician-gynecologist who had distributed food to patients from her garage), the Homeless Prenatal Program at Potrero and 18th streets, the Women’s Building at 18th near Guerrero Street, and La Raza Community Resource Center on Valencia Street.
But by summer, La Raza felt overwhelmed and asked if it could share its demand with HOMEY/FIA. That’s how Cordeiro met Alfaro. She agreed to give HOMEY $10,000 in credit from the soda-tax money and connect him with food boxes from Arcadio’s Produce, a company at the SF Market. That expanded HOMEY/FIA’s Saturday pantry arsenal to nearly 250 boxes a week. “I was like, okay! So now we’re talking,” Alfaro said.
By July, Cordeiro’s work gained even more recognition. The Crankstart Foundation, operated by spouses Michael Mortiz and Harriet Heyman, allocated $1.32 million for the remainder of the year to keep up the program. “I was stunned,” Cordeiro said.
Her partnerships would grow from 22 to 36.
On Tuesday mornings at Dolores Park, one could watch the non-lockdown life take shape as young San Franciscans filled the bright green hillside and sat in the painted white circles that delineated picnicking households. But within sight was another San Francisco reality: the line. It resembled the video game Snake, with its right angles wrapping around Dolores, 18th and Church streets; it eventually fed into the Mission High School parking lot, where the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank distributed food.
That pantry, along with the 28 other Covid-19 emergency pop-up pantries that currently run, didn’t exist pre-pandemic. In June, people would claim their spot in the Mission High line two hours before the pop-up opened its doors at 9 a.m., earnestly waiting to lug home 25 pounds of food. Back then, the food bank was also shuttling meals to about 12,000 seniors.
As savings dried up and the pandemic persisted, people who had never visited the pantries started showing up for the first time. John Banesa, a hotel events manager, was one. He said he felt guilty, but the insecurity of his job motivated him to get in line. “I never thought I would be doing this,” Banesa told Mission Local in June. “If I saw an end to the crisis with hotels, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
By late July, the need had swelled so much that the food bank switched its infrastructure to ensure enough food could be served to everyone. Though this erased the wait times and the line, food insecurity remained; at least 500 households would continue to receive food at Mission High each week.
That summer, the lines at the Hub at 701 Alabama St. also lengthened as the number of families seeking food ballooned to 7,000 a week. The wait grew to upwards of five hours, and Hernández worried about the elderly Latinx and Cantonese residents who were left standing there.
By August, the Latino Task Force created a network of community groups that would get food from the Hub and distribute it to their own participants, like Asociación Mayab, a lower Mission organization that works with local Maya residents. The Hub added drivers to drop off deliveries to elders and homebound residents.
By this time, the city was funding the Hub, but Hernández saw more need, and launched a fundraiser that would rake in $270,000 from nearly 2,000 individuals.
“It worked out beautifully,” Hernández said.
Autumn kicked off somewhat optimistically for San Francisco. The city coasted into September with some of the lowest Covid-19 cases, though doctors warned a new and possibly more deadly surge lurked just around the corner. For some eateries, revenue slightly increased as warm weather invited crowds back to parks and outdoor dining spaces. That’s how food distributors remembered it, too.
In September, though the Carnaval parade was cancelled, Hernández was pleased to throw a kind of Carnaval celebration after all, this time with new additions like free Covid-19 testing. Of course, there were boxes and boxes of food — over 1,000 — each packed with a watermelon and a Carnaval themed meal-kit. “It’s important people can still celebrate rituals,” Hernández said.
Other organizations followed suit and passed out meals for Día de Los Muertos. The SF-Marin Food Bank staff dressed in Halloween costumes and prepared to give out 232,000 pounds of chicken and a million pounds of produce the following month. Though the need was greater than ever, it seemed under control — for example, a miraculous $600,000 donation came in to the Hub by way of a phone call. “They said, what’s your routing number?” Hernández recalled. “I had just bought a pan dulce on 24th Street and started to cry.”
By November, Alfaro scrolled through Instagram and saw an Instagram Live from an account called Mission Meals, a pandemic-borne mutual aid group co-founded by Gabriela Alemán. He’d learn that Mission Meals launched officially in March when Alemán and her sister bought 100 tamales from Eterna Primavera Bakery on 24th Street and dropped them off to families up and down District 9, and that it had since gained acclaim for launching a community fridge with SF Community Fridge in the Mission. Alfaro, impressed, reached out.
He’d find out that a month earlier, Cordeiro, who had helped HOMEY/FIA and other organizations, had already signed Mission Meals up to receive Crankstart donations for food distribution. It was then that Alfaro decided to unite the group of smaller pantries focused on the lower Mission into a “collaborative food alliance” to exchange advice and leverage resources. He named it the SF Latinx CBO Mutual Aid Working Group, and roped in Mission Meals.
“It’s just so rare to have that support, especially as a young Latina in the lower Mission. I am just beyond grateful,” Alemán said.
That support would come in handy weeks later, when the impact of a series of unfortunate Covid-19 super-spreader events emerged, and the USDA program Alfaro had relied on threatened to end. Though it didn’t, the federal program decreased funding significantly, and a change in its structure caused a lapse of two weeks’ worth of food, potentially leaving thousands in the lurch.
“November, everybody was running out of food. It was bad,” Alfaro recalled.
Hernández was alarmed, too, as the same USDA program provided the Hub’s thousands of boxes of food. He was supposed to be cheering: days before Thanksgiving, he managed to sweet-talk grocers and charities into donating almost 7,000 turkeys, which he allowed Hub participants to pick up for free, in the spirit of the holiday.
“It’s like, how do you cut a program? Right. And, look at right now, we’re in another surge, we’re shutting down businesses. And so, here we go again. The lines this week saw an increase,” he told Mission Local in November.
He picked up the phone, trying to find a solution to keep the money going, and luckily the city Give2SF money was enough to put the Hub through the two-week gap and the year. Still, Hernández prayed to God.
Winter was the worst, by most accounts.
Standing in the Hub line in mid-December was Santa Matias, who had recently sat her 7-year-old son down to tell him that he should not expect any toys for Christmas this year. She explained, in Spanish, that the family did not have much money, and he should ask for necessities instead of Legos.
The Covid-19 Thanksgiving surge was projected to last through February, and would prove to be the most devastating. Financial programs and grants would dry up by December 31, affecting aid. Bay Area counties shut down fully again. Nevertheless, December — and multiple donors — brought miracles.
The USDA providers ended up delivering to Alfaro after all, resulting in two 18-wheelers that dumped 25 pallets of 1,200 boxes of food right on Mission Street. The same amount would come for three weeks, which Alfaro would share with the SF Latinx CBO Mutual Aid Working Group, whose members were also strapped for food. HOMEY/FIA itself could now supply 800 boxes per week at its pantry.
In December, the SF-Marin Food Bank managed to serve a total of 5,200,000 meals, 63 percent more than it provided in December, 2019. With the new city revenue, Hernández didn’t have to turn away any of the thousands of families still frequenting the Hub. Private donations kept the food running, too, at other nonprofits that worried they would run out of supply, including the Women’s Building, which had been opening its pantry an extra day for months now due to need.
Still, by January, 2021, the Covid-19 surge was not yet over, and it was all hands on deck for testing and food. Other groups, like Unidos en Salud, the UCSF and Latino Task Force collaborative, helped feed hundreds of families in the Mission who had contracted Covid-19. At the same time, vaccines were slowly rolling out.
In February, the situation had cautiously brightened. Around Lunar New Year, Melgarejo got the HOMEY/FIA pantry to pass out red envelopes filled with candy to honor the many Chinese residents that came through. They were met by Chinese-speaking volunteers, including Jennifer Li, an aide from District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office, who had been translating at the site since Thanksgiving.
By then, Alfaro had decided to commit to a full year of food service, though just a year before HOMEY had distributed “zero,” he said, laughing. Alfaro and the SF Latinx CBO Mutual Aid Working Group applied for city funds with Arcadio’s Produce, who had been working steadily with groups like HOMEY SF and Mission Meals during the pandemic. They got accepted around February — funding all the coalition members’ food distribution until December 2021.
A year later, the work continues. Though more Covid-19 shots are being administered, and case rates remain low, those delivering food in the pandemic know better. Numerous people still confront outstanding debts from rent and lack of employment, and they will still show up to these doors hungry.
As of now, Hernández is still re-upping with USDA, and he has no doubt the Hub, which presently serves 9,000 families a week, will remain long after. The SF-Marin Food Bank is steadily delivering 55,000 meals a week with a facilitated new structure; in the past year, it opened 28 pop-up pantries, leased two new warehouses and distributed millions of pounds of food. As schools open up in April, the SFUSD and its food partner, Revolution Foods, have decided to keep its pandemic-borne pick-up program, have added a food delivery program, and will reopen the meal services students relied on before Covid-19 in some capacity.
Alfaro and the SF Latinx CBO Mutual Aid Working Group members now have enough resources to get through the end of the year — a major feat, considering half of them didn’t distribute food a year ago. One of those, Mission Meals, is now a full-fledged mutual-aid group that serves hundreds of families and farmworkers across the Bay, and has raised more than $15,000 through art and fundraisers; its fridge moved to 20th Street, and presently serves 100 families each Sunday. Alfaro said he’s approaching Guillermo Vasquez, the city gardener who has cultivated a produce pantry on 20th Street in the wake of Covid-19, in hopes of growing the food coalition.
All told, the pandemic began with roughly less than 1,000 food boxes being distributed in the Mission District each week. Now, that number is at least 11,000. Citywide, more than 2 million bags of food and a separate 15 million meals were given out during shelter-in-place, and at least $7 million in Give2SF funds went to the Human Services Agency of San Francisco for food insecurity programs, a department spokesman said.
Despite heartbreaking moments, organizers said watching the community come together has been the silver lining. Locals worked hard to identify and provide culturally-appropriate foods. Real connections have been formed throughout the year, as volunteers who were once strangers celebrated birthdays and baby showers at these sites together. And at the Hub and HOMEY’s pantries, many of those who stood in food lines came back as volunteers.
“People from all over have just kind of loaned their love and support. It just goes on and on and on,” Alfaro said. “It’s been pretty wild to see.”
Juan Carlos Lara and Clara-Sophia Daly contributed to this report.
If you are looking for food, visit: https://sf.gov/get-food-resources. Food in or near the Mission District can also be found at the pantries listed below, and also Bethel Christian Church on 1325 Valencia St., The Salvation Army at certain locations, and near Laundré on 3487 20th St. on Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m.
To support the Hub, go here. Its food pantry operates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 701 Alabama St.
To support Mission Meals, visit its site or send money via Venmo at Mission-Meals or via Cash App at $MissionMeals. The fridge runs on 20th Street between San Carlos and Mission streets from 3:00 to 5 p.m. on Sundays until supplies last.
To support HOMEY SF, go here. The Saturday pantry runs from 11 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on 2221 Mission St.
To support Faith in Action Bay Area, go here.
To support the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, go here. Pantry locations are here.
To support the Women’s Building, go here. Pantries run Mondays and Thursdays from 9:00 a.m. to 10 a.m. at 3543 18th St.
To support La Raza Community Resource Center, go here. It’s pantry for families with children runs Wednesdays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at 474 Valencia St.
To support the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market and the Food is Medicine Covid-19 Emergency Response Program, contact Janna Cordeiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To support San Francisco’s Give2SF fund, go here.
A wonderfully inspiring history. Thanks
From a couple of ZIP Codes to the north, I’ve been observing the rapid community and organizational response to the COVID-19-related emergencies in the Mission District.
About the same time that Melba Maldonado, Roberto Hernández, Roberto Eligio Alfaro and others were scrambling to address food shortages in the Mission, various groups in the Tenderloin were trying to do something similar. The community lost two food pantries when the SFUSD schools closed in mid-March. Before the pandemic, both Tenderloin Community School and Redding Elementary had provided their families with groceries each week (as did Bessie Carmichael in SoMa). A group of neighborhood stakeholders, both school principals, and the SF Marin Food Bank met in mid-April to work on getting a large community-wide food pantry in the Tenderloin. (La Voz Latina and other organizations continued to operate their own pantries, but they had limited capacity.)
I had been fairly optimistic that this would be a relatively straightforward and not too complex project. I really had not expected that San Francisco’s can’t-do attitude toward the Tenderloin would include blocking a food pantry for hungry families. But the logistics of parking a truck, getting operations staff (still on the city payroll library and other employees), setting up bagging and distribution tables, and organizing a socially-distanced line for hungry families was too complicated for whichever city departments and officials got in the way of such a simple idea. More than five months into the pandemic, the Food Bank was going to be allowed to open a pantry on UN Plaza, but shortly before it was set to open, someone (I haven’t done the Sunshine Request, but I am fairly certain I know who it was) decided that the Plaza was an unsuitable location. So, no food there – SF couldn’t allow food distribution to happen on a site where there is a farmer’s market three (now two) days a week. Instead, a short-term pantry was opened by Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, but it got forced out so the Department of Elections could open the outdoor voting center. At the end of September, Tenderloin residents finally got a neighborhood food pantry on the 200 block of Ellis Street. Miraculously, all the logistical issues that had prevented convenient access to food for six months vanished – it almost seems those issues had never been real.
I’ve thought about the city’s response to the Tenderloin quite a bit, and it has been weird to hear elected officials like Mayor Breed, Assemblyman Ting, Supervisor Ronen, termed-out Supervisor Fewer and our “valiant” city attorney scream, threaten, sue and in some cases cry about the damage SFUSD has done to its students as the district has worked through the complex issues around reopening schools for in-person learning.
Figuring out how to park a truck and distribute food is vastly less complex than reopening more than 100 school sites for 50,000 students, but that straightforward task was stymied for nearly six months – by ineptitude, indifference and (I guess) more important things (or people) to take care of.
The city’s failure to address food insecurity in the Tenderloin is exceeded by its disregard for the physical and mental health of 3,500 kids in the neighborhood who almost entirely disappeared from public spaces after the public health order to shelter in place was issued. The transformation of streets elsewhere into safer places to walk, run, bike, play and breathe could not be done in the Tenderloin. SFFD and SFMTA refused to budge: Slow Streets was not a good fit for the neighborhood, emergency vehicles needed unfettered access to all streets at all times. “The City that Knows How” just didn’t know how. End of story. Sorry, kids, there’s nothing we can do for you. There’s nowhere to play. Stay inside and invisible so we won’t look like a crappy city that mistreats its kids. The absence of kids from public spaces in the Tenderloin had been so total that when ten or so preschoolers from Wu Yee walked along Golden Gate Avenue to get to Boeddeker Park a couple blocks away, Randy Shaw could caption a photo of them “Children return to Tenderloin streets” (Beyond Chron, 30 June, 2020) – as if ten were enough.
For most of the pandemic, concerned and committed community members haves sought city support (or at least cooperation) in creating safe recreation spaces in the Tenderloin. By mid-October when the state finally allowed playgrounds to reopen, the Tenderloin had gotten just a handful of street closures on the 200 block of Turk Street for several hours of Play Streets. After months without anything, Play Streets will return to the neighborhood at the end of the month, this time on one block of Golden Gate Avenue.
Those wonderful few hours when kids were in the street have been far too little. Trying to get more has been a painfully slow process, despite weekly Zoom meetings to which dozens of people from many city departments (including the Mayor’s Office) are invited. Having learned from someone in Phil Ting’s office that Sean Elsbernd, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, was convinced that the city had failed Tenderloin kids, I emailed him in October asking for leadership and financial support for the proposals we’d been working on for so long. I’m sure he’s a busy man, and failing TL kids is just one of the city’s problems, but he couldn’t be bothered to respond or even delegate the response to someone else. Once you’ve failed a neighborhood, you might as well keep failing.
Although we are about to get a one-block pilot project up and running on Turk Street, we still can’t get a one-block alley closed and Rec and Park has failed to follow through on their commitment to creating a designated kids’ recreation area on Civic Center Plaza. Having seen similar enclosures on other Rec and Park property, I had proposed a fenced area as a safety measure, but I was told fences are too ugly for such a beautiful plaza so we settled on signage. That was September. Still waiting. (But, speaking of ugly fences, I do wonder why the ugly police barricades are still blocking City Hall ten months after they were put up to protect the building from Black Lives Matters demonstrators.)
San Francisco city government has repeatedly failed the Tenderloin since well before COVID-19. Nearly a year of advocacy for kids has wrested a few crumbs from this fabulously wealthy city and county. Unlike the politicians and others who can’t shut up about SFUSD’s steady work over the past year, I realize these are complex issues that actually take a lot of work and coordination. Nonetheless, there is no denying that San Francisco has compounded multiple long-term failures by refusing to treat Tenderloin kids with respect in the midst of yet another emergency in their lives.