As word of the coronavirus spread early last year, Lenore Estrada saw her business shrivel. Her corporate customers abandoned their offices and standing bulk orders plummeted.
First, the co-owner of Three Babes Bakeshop located at Phelps Street and Bancroft Avenue had to lay off 20 of her 26 staffers. Then she had to liquidate her perishable inventory.
Like so many other small businesses during the COVID pandemic, necessity spurred innovation.
Along with longtime employee Jacob Bindman, Estrada sought out groups who could purchase and donate unpurchased pies to those without food.
What she found, though, was an overwhelming need to feed the ballooning number of people facing hunger in the immediate wake of the pandemic.
With a $1 million investment from a college friend — Emmett Shear, founder of the tech firm Twitch — Estrada and Bindman launched a local nonprofit, now known as San Francisco New Deal, in a home kitchen where they prepared 100 brown bag lunches to distribute through Citywide Case Management in UCSF’s psychiatric care program.
The following week, they brought on three restaurant partners, paid them a small stipend and prepared 20,000 meals to distribute through UCSF, the San Francisco American Faith Based Coalition and the Human Rights Commission.
In the 14 months since, SF New Deal has transformed into a model for a community-based solution to fighting San Francisco’s hunger crisis while keeping small businesses afloat. Using a combination of city contract funding and private donations, it has paid 184 restaurants to provide a total of nearly 2 million meals to some of The City’s most vulnerable.
“It’s not like I was unaware of food security before, but realizing it was us, this random group of volunteers, bringing someone’s only meal showed there was a need not being met,” Estrada said.
Hunger in San Francisco
Before the pandemic, one in four people in San Francisco couldn’t reliably access healthy food.
The onset of COVID-19 deepened that need. People were laid off, school lunches were harder to access and many were homebound with underlying conditions or vulnerable family members.
Data from the San Francisco Human Services Agency shows hunger increased across every indicator: number of meals delivered, number of clients served, amount of food assistance distributed and applications for federal benefits received, among others.
Residents of color, families with children and households with mixed immigration status have been the hardest hit by the worsening food security crisis during the pandemic.
Part of what makes SF New Deal unique is that it partners local restaurants with community organizations that already have intimate expertise in the neighborhoods they serve.
Take Kiki Vo, a social worker at a congregate housing facility run by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in Mission Bay, where she helps provide services to over 400 residents, many of whom are living in multi-generational homes or come from low income, working class backgrounds, often including some time spent living on the streets.
“It’s been really challenging because not only did a lot of our people lose their jobs, even before COVID they could barely make it,” Vo said. “It exaggerates that food insecurity. Many folks struggle with mental health on top of that, so when COVID hit it just amplified everything.”
SF New Deal is currently providing 40 families at the Mission Bay housing facility with $90,000 worth of food vouchers to nearby restaurants and food trucks, enough for roughly 260 people to eat four square meals per week that they choose themselves for about three months, Vo says.
If Estrada was shocked by demand from social services providers, she wasn’t nearly as surprised by the number of restaurants interested in a stable source of revenue during an otherwise disastrous time.
A small business owner herself, she watched as traffic to her bakery dried up almost completely and she was forced to personally guarantee all of her outstanding loans.
According to a survey of SF New Deal’s restaurant partners, average debt has increased from $62,000 to $114,000, and 60 percent of workers were laid off.
SF New Deal aims to give restaurants sustained revenue as opposed to less predictable earnings from volatile customer behavior. Restaurants can provide vouchers, like in Mission Bay, or cook meals and deliver them to residents directly.
This approach allows businesses to rehire employees and pay overhead costs such as outstanding rent.
Suzana Helvaci says the program helped save her Turkish restaurant in the Inner Sunset, LaLe.
Payments from SF New Deal accounted for nearly 90 percent of the restaurant’s revenue in the height of the pandemic. Now, it accounts for about 50 percent as more patrons return, and she’s been able to bring back six of her 15 employees.
Partner restaurants have been able to rehire about 32 percent of their pre-pandemic workforce, according to SF New Deal’s annual impact report.
Helvaci, who has partnered with the nonprofit for more than a year, says her small team prepares between 100 and 300 meals at a time. She’s prepared food for seniors, family style meals and dishes for people living in hotel rooms.
“When the New Deal came around with this amount of orders, it went from a depressing state to some kind of hopefulness, the idea that we can help provide meals and give my employees some kind of income,” she said.
All told, the nonprofit has disbursed over $20 million to San Francisco businesses, but Estrada recalls looking for money “week to week” in the organization’s earliest days.
“The first million went really fast. It was really a scramble, and we felt a lot of pressure,” she said. “The consequence if we didn’t raise the money was that people would lose jobs and health care and people would go hungry.”
The program’s success laid bare the dire need of many San Franciscans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, but it also highlighted the precariousness and inconsistency faced by the groups that endeavor to support them.
Often, they must turn to a patchwork of private backers to finance their efforts or rely on relatively short-term government contracts that might last only months. The reliance on external help means they forego the chance to tap into existing resources to engender solutions that come from and work for the community.
Estrada said the process can be “demoralizing,” and SF New Deal wants to disrupt the model by creating a bridge between city resources, small local businesses and the neighborhoods within which they exist.
“What can we do to create a safety net that’s tighter and wider for more people all the time, not just emergent times,” she said. “How can we make it easier for small businesses to participate in the resources that are flowing from the government to help the community?”
The Board of Supervisors recently extended contracts with two SF New Deal programs, one that delivers food to seniors through Dec. 31 and another that provides food for those in alternative housing settings such as RV sites, congregating housing and hotels through May 17, 2022.
Though some restaurant partners have started to end their partnership as customers return, plenty others say they’ll stay on for the guaranteed revenue but also for the social impact.
“We are committed as long as they need meals from us,” said Helvaci.