Pandemic exacerbates food insecurity for San Franciscans in need

Mayor Breed proposes $45.7 million for meal programs under two-year budget

Jenny De La Paz has struggled to feed her family of five.

She can’t work because a blood disorder makes her prone to strokes, and chemotherapy and prescription medications have hollowed out her household savings.

To make matters worse, the pandemic has leveled her husband’s hardwood floor installation business.

“We’re down to probably one job a month,” said De La Paz. “We’re behind on bills, rent and everything.”

But weekly bags of fresh food from the nonprofit Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates have helped her provide a healthy, joyful dinner for her three hungry boys in an otherwise trying time.

De La Paz is not alone in her struggle. In 2018, health officials found that one in four residents risked going hungry due to their income.

The pandemic has only increased the number of those in need and highlighted the food security issues that have long dogged many San Franciscans.

The City has also had to reimagine how to deliver meals to those in need as churches and schools have been forced to cease serving food indoors.

Meanwhile, transit officials have dramatically reduced bus lines during the budget crisis, erecting another barrier to fresh meals for those who live in food deserts.

“Did I know that food security was a problem ahead of time? Yes. But did I understand how deep it was, or the fact that there were so many structural barriers to getting fresh food? I had no idea,” said Michelle Pierce, who runs the Bayview Hunters Point nonprofit.

Volunteers hand out food and other supplies at Mission Food Hub, which was set up in May to answer needs brought on by coronavirus. (Shandana Qazi/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Volunteers hand out food and other supplies at Mission Food Hub, which was set up in May to answer needs brought on by coronavirus. (Shandana Qazi/Special to S.F. Examiner)

But The City is responding.

On Friday, Mayor London Breed announced her two-year budget proposal which includes $45.7 million to bolster food security programs. The proposal puts community-based providers at the “heart of this effort.”

“I don’t think that there was really enough of an understanding of investing in food security prior to COVID,” said Janna Cordeiro, program manager at SF Market. “I feel like there’s been a shift and people in leadership are finally understanding what we’ve been saying for a long time.”

Cordeiro oversees outreach programs at SF Market, The City’s largest wholesale produce market that’s now providing groceries for community groups to deliver to residents.

Roberto Eligio Alfaro, executive director of the Mission nonprofit HOMEY, said funding from The City has been key in their ability to scale up with growing demand.

What started as 20 bag lunches handmade by a teacher at Hilltop High School quickly transformed into a 20-person volunteer corps that’s delivering organic produce to roughly 450 people every week, he said.

Most of HOMEY’s participants are monolingual Spanish or Mayan speakers and Alfaro estimates roughly 40 percent have children.

“It makes a huge difference to give them healthy foods instead of commodity foods, the type of stuff that’s just leftovers nobody else wants,” Alfaro said. “That’s what a lot of people in our community are accustomed to getting.”

But challenges still exist.

Even before the pandemic, The City’s efforts to resolve food insecurity were falling short of the needs of low-income families.

A 2018 study from the San Francisco Marin Food Bank found about 11 percent of meals needed for these individuals to survive couldn’t be provided through a combination of personal purchase, government assistance and nonprofit support.

The neighborhoods most at risk of hunger are largely composed of people of color, low-income families and immigrants. They’re the places where a grocery store can’t be found for a mile.

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the Bayview, said that is the result of The City deprioritizing certain neighborhoods for years.

“It’s not a coincidence that a higher percentage of Black residents have suffered from systemic lack of resources, not just from The City, but private dollars, too,” Walton said.

He has also raised issues with a grocery store that is in the Bayview, Foods Co., not adequately providing fresh produce and hot meals.

As for the Tenderloin, residents have been able to shop at Trader Joe’s on Fourth and Market streets in recent years, but the grocery store has become inaccessible for some because of the lack of public transportation services available during the pandemic.

“It’s a major equity issue, and one of the major health issues of our day,” said Rebecca Carrillo from the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. “It touches all of these other pieces that ultimately affect every aspect of your life, literally.”

During the crisis, the group’s emergency response program has served 1,888 households with weekly groceries and prepared meals from neighborhood restaurants and a farm.

Volunteers help give away food boxes and other items to those in need at Mission Food Hub on Friday, July 31, 2020. (Shandana Qazi/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Volunteers help give away food boxes and other items to those in need at Mission Food Hub on Friday, July 31, 2020. (Shandana Qazi/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

One community group in the Mission has quickly adapted to the meet the need.

“Que quieren? Tenemos masa!” Roberto Hernandez said, as he shouts to people waiting in a line that often wraps around the corner on Alabama Street in the Mission.

Many of those in line are elderly Latinas, eager to feed their families with the traditional foods that nourished them in their youth: masas, nopales, frijoles and queso fresco.

Others are recently laid off barbacks and hospitality workers, many of whom have children, Hernandez said.

Mission Food Hub started out of Hernandez’s garage and a handful of scrappy volunteers in May. This week alone, it gave away grocery boxes to about 7,800 families between its three pickup days at a vacant warehouse at 701 Alabama St.

“The difference between us and a bunch of other food pantries is I made a decision early on that we’re going to provide culturally appropriate food,” Hernandez said.

Cordeiro agreed food needs to be served with dignity.

“Our system is broken,” Cordeiro said. “It’s completely unjust that we have such wealth in our city but so many people are going hungry or are just malnourished because they’re only given foods with poor nutritional quality.”

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