Lively Latin music filled the courtyard of Saint Mary’s and Martha’s Church, where dozens of volunteers took their posts. Some were tasked with handing out green bell peppers; others would dispense slabs of beef. Over the next four hours, some 1,160 San Franciscans were expected to pass through “El Mercadito,” and take a box of free groceries home.
Minutes before noon, the program director, Jacqui Portillo, silenced the music momentarily.
“Okay, are you ready?” Portillo told volunteers. Though the free food distribution center hadn’t opened yet, some 500 people were already in line, flooding the sidewalks and stairs of old Victorians on 21st Street near South Van Ness Avenue.
“Ser amable, sonreír … con sus ojos,” Portillo advised volunteers; be friendly, smile with your eyes. (The volunteers had masks on.)
As the Mission Food Hub at 701 Alabama St. continues to wind down its food distribution services, local homeless and welfare nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services has stepped in to fill some of the need with El Mercadito.
Last summer, Cultura y Arte Nativa de las Américas (CANA), which ran the Mission Food Hub, declined to apply for a city contract food distribution grant. “We didn’t put in our proposal, because we had our challenges with the city,” Mission Food Hub founder Roberto Hernandez told Mission Local.
Instead, Dolores Street applied, and won contracts with the city to take over Mission food distribution from August, 2022, to June, 2023, worth $4,125,000 total. The contract tasks Dolores Street with feeding thousands of low-income families, and states the organization is responsible “for procuring all food and packaging” and will get reimbursed a maximum of $50 a box.
Previously, the city funded the Latino Task Force Resource Hub at 701 Alabama St. to feed the neighborhood, though it covered only a “slice” of the needy families, Hernandez said. The Mission Food Hub began in the thick of pandemic, as workers who lost jobs suddenly were strapped for food. A grassroots effort to bring local families food grew into Mission Food Hub, which supplied some 7,000 families food weekly, as well as thousands of turkeys on Thanksgiving. To fund all the operations, Hernandez has been “dialing for dollars” to public and private funders, and sometimes procured food directly from distributors.
But Dolores Street took over last summer, and a few weeks ago moved operations to South Van Ness Avenue. El Mercadito, so far, is serving roughly 2,000 families a week, and is continuing to enroll.
Florencio Zaragoza waited patiently on Capp Street at 10 a.m. Wednesday for El Mercadito’s noon opening.
Zaragoza, along with some 2,000 others, registered with El Mercadito and received a special identification card and an assigned food collection day, he explained in Spanish. Wednesday was Zaragoza’s day, and he and others showed their identification card to a volunteer and took a “number” for their place in line. (However, people with disabilities or mobility issues can skip the line.) When called, they can get their food.
The Mercadito cards resemble Zaragoza’s Food Hub ID. Other food pantries, also flooded by customers during the pandemic, similarly implemented ID cards, limits on enrollment, and specific food collection times to manage demand.
Indeed, demand is high and can irritate neighbors. Hundreds of people waiting outside Saint Mary’s during El Mercadito’s first week on Feb. 16 caused some tension, according to Iris Ortiz, a Mission resident who was waiting for food. “There were all these complaints,” another man chimed in, in Spanish. Ortiz nodded.
Yet by this week, neighbors’ frustrated feelings cooled quickly, Portillo said. The organization’s volunteers also remind clients to keep their voices low, to avoid blocking businesses or entryways, and clean up trash.
The program is still accepting new enrollees on site at Sainty Mary’s at 1050 South Van Ness Ave. near 21st Street, Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 4 p.m. Portillo said they hope to make some changes to decrease lines and wait times. On Wednesday by 1 p.m., a volunteer said some 24 new people registered. Already, Wednesday had 1,161 families registered, and Friday had 978 families.
Outside of those who show up in person, some 475 boxes are delivered to neighborhood centers like Mission Neighborhood Health Center, Asociacion Mayab, or veteran services.
That’s a fraction of the 7,000 families the Mission Food Hub had served. Hernandez said he hopes to feed “high-priority families” — such as single mothers with children, couples with seven children, or unemployed parents with children — on Fridays at the Hub, while Dolores Street takes over city contracts.
Still, most of the clients attending El Mercadito were former Hub clients. Ramedios Rivera, a Mission resident, said that Hub volunteers notified them of the change. She’s pleased. “The food is the same, it’s the same time,” Rivera said in Spanish.
Ortiz said she didn’t notice much difference by switching food providers, except sometimes she said her children were disappointed on days when El Mercadito didn’t offer milk. However, on Wednesday, they had five kinds of milk, both dairy and nondairy.
Despite the changes, Wednesday remains a party day to look forward to for Chinese seniors. “We’ve been the visiting this food bank for quite a while,” said one of two 80-somethings who arrived early with their Warriors hats and five other friends. “The original one needed a card with my picture on it, this one doesn’t need it yet, probably because it just started.” They usually take whatever is offered to them — vegetables, fruit, eggs — but on Wednesday, they were most excited for the chicken legs.
Through food choice, Portillo hopes to provide culturally relevant services, and food is important to El Mercadito. She bought bunches of tangerines, she said, to honor many of the Cantonese speaking elders in line. Tangerines are signs of good luck, especially during Chinese New Year.
She views the number of food orders from local producer Arcadio’s on a spreadsheet, and divvies up the day’s rations. Everyone gets meat, four onions, three cobs of corn, two mangos, four apples … you get the picture.
Other food is pleasing to all, she said. “I try to be inclusive,” Portillo said. “You missed it. I had tofu and cheese last time. But avocados? Everybody loves. Tomatoes? Everybody loves. Those big mangos?”
As she explains, some 60 volunteers bustle around. Some occasionally ask Portillo a question, and as she answers she gives them a gentle pat on the shoulder. “You can see it,” Portillo said. “It’s still a learning process. People will complain. But everybody’s happy.”
El Mercadito is open to registered households Wednesdays and Fridays at 1050 South Van Ness Ave. near 21st St. from noon to 4 p.m.
Chinese and Spanish speakers are available.
To register a household, visit the table at 1050 South Van Ness Ave. One enrollment is given per household address.
Reporter Yujie Zhou has contributed to this report.