A man walks across S Van Ness with an improvised food basket. Photo by Adrian Jose Fernandez on March 15, 2023.

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Even though many pandemic-era protections are ending, the lines for provisions at the Mission food bank “El Mercadito” are as long as ever.

The market first began distributing free food on Alabama Street, but moved to its new location at Mary’s and Martha’s Church on South Van Ness in the last couple of weeks. 

Program director Jacqui Portillo said the number of people in line has “almost doubled”  to some 600 men and women who line up every week when the food is distributed.

On a recent Wednesday, the line rounded the corner onto 21st Street, and wrapped around the entirety of the block, almost forming a complete loop. Volunteers took advantage of the time residents had to wait to walk up and down the line, passing out pamphlets that detailed pathways to citizenship.

A young volunteer appeared to lose his patience as he directed people to get into, and remain in, a single-file line. “Line, line, line, let’s go!” He hollered several times before repeating the message in Chinese. 

When recent arrivals attempted to cut in front of others who had been waiting in line for hours, some called them out; others simply rolled their eyes and let it happen.

The line, filled with mostly Latinx and Asian residents, included everyone from children to seniors. Some said that it was their very first time standing in a food line.

People in line. Photo by Adrian Jose Fernandez on March 15, 2023.

The lines are likely to get even longer when an estimated 100,000 San Francisco residents feel the effects, in April, of CalFresh food benefits being cut back to as little as $23 a month from the pandemic-era supplement of more than $200.

Stories from the line

Antonio, who sported an LA baseball cap and a gray beard, said that he was the first to arrive in line at 5:30 a.m. He presented a ticket given to him by the pantry staff. “I got here before all of these people,” the 55-year-old said as he motioned toward the rest of the line.

“And yet, I got ticket Number 14,” he said. “Tell me how that is fair. I’ve been here for at least six hours, since then many people simply pushed their way into the line. … There has to be a better way to organize the food drop-offs. They used to give out pre-packaged bags, which was much quicker.” 

Nowadays, the pantry allows people inside to select the groceries they will use, so that none go to waste.

The line rounds a corner at South Van Ness Avenue, going down 21st Street. Photo by Adrian Jose Fernandez on March 15, 2023.

“I believe that if they changed their strategy, we could all go home a lot sooner,” said Patricia De Leon, who had been waiting in line for several hours under the partial shade of a tree on 21st Street.

De Leon said she had been there since 9 a.m., almost four hours. “And the line has not budged!” she said. While De Leon had her complaints, she was also grateful. “This is a very important service,” she said. “Thanks be to God for its existence.”

Maria Romero, originally from Peru, said that she would “Rather be working than standing in a food line.  “We want to work, but there are very few jobs available,” she said. … “Nobody wants to hire people who only speak Spanish.” Another woman who stood nearby nodded in agreement. They were both in line for pet food, separate from the main food line.

Sally Stephens and her co-worker pose for a picture in front of the pet food bin. Photo by Adrian Jose Fernandez on March 8, 2023.

The pet-food giveaway was stationed right outside the Mercadito. The organization SFDOG, which is independent of the food bank, gave out 1,000 pounds of free dog and cat food.

“The need is so great. We have had people tell us that, without our help, they would have had to surrender their [pets],.” said Sally Stephens, chair of SFDOG. “[we] are basically all volunteers, we are non-profit, so when people donate they get tax reductions which helps us get donations … people have been extremely generous.”

Leonor Yepez called standing in line boring, but helpful. “Do you know how expensive eggs are right now at the grocery store? [The Mercadito] provides them free of charge,” she said. “I’m very thankful for the service they provide.”

A middle-aged, redheaded Latina, who declined to give her name, said the food bank needed more volunteers. “We need more volunteers, this line is so slow. … Not only that, but owners of the houses along this street have been reporting us to the police for sitting down on their steps or even just on the sidewalk,” she said.

A big complaint, confirmed by a volunteer, was the lack of any bathrooms or port-a-potties. No solution appeared imminent.

“People are supposed to get here at 11 a.m.,” said a volunteer. “But they start lining up hours before that. If they came on time, they wouldn’t have to use the restroom, as the wait would be much shorter.”

Salvatore, an elderly man originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, sat on the front steps of a residential property. He spoke on the issue of police being called on those waiting in line: “There is a lot of criminalization and racism. … [Homeowners] call the cops on people just waiting for their food. They feel superior because they have green eyes and blond hair.”

Hector Romero, a 55-year-old volunteer, sported a reflective yellow vest as he directed people into line. He said that the police had been called on people sitting on the steps of the surrounding homes just that morning. “What are you going to do? You can’t control everybody,” he said. When asked whether he had witnessed any harassment of people in line by police, he shook his head. “It’s usually nothing that serious. The police come once in a while, tell people to move, and typically,  that’s it.”

Reginald Wise, 56, who owns the Sun Spot CBD Shop, has a direct view of the food line from across the block. He said that the nearest public restroom was most likely Dolores Park. “It’s kind of a [long] walk. It would be really cool if the city put out port-a-potties and made it easier for people who are trying to get these resources.” 

Wise was sympathetic to the plight of those waiting in line who rested by sitting on front stoops. “What else are people going to do [but sit on the steps while they wait]? If you look at the age of the average person there, I mean, I know young folks who couldn’t stand that long.”

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  1. How come no senior Asian recipient was interviewed for this article? They make up the largest population currently being serviced at this location.

    Why cant the recipients use the church’s bathrooms?

    Thank you Jacqui Portillo for removing the box delivery trucks from unloading on 21st Street.

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  2. Even if mostly what you eat is rice and beans, the SNAP benefits are not adequate, and never really have been. COVID increases helped so many survive, and show how stingy CA and the Feds are in helping the lowest income folks. Many of them old and disabled and will never be able to “just get a better job”.

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