Food Pantries Amidst the Pandemic

COVID-19 has forced millions of Americans to change the way they live. In times like these, most people go into survival mode, but some are better equipped than others. Panic buyers who could afford to were hoarding beans, rice, and toilet paper, while other individuals were wondering how they would provide for their families in the months ahead. According to an early 2020 survey of 8,000 workers in the United States, nearly 40% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Many minimum wage employees work two or more jobs to make ends meet, but this global crisis has halted work for 36 million Americans as of mid-May. Many unemployed people are turning to food pantries to provide for their families.

In San Francisco, food pantries, restaurants, and catering businesses are figuring out how to comply with COVID-19 mitigation policies while still feeding people. SF Marin Food Bank and Food Runners are two Bay Area pantries that are navigating the crisis, while Taste Catering has launched a project to feed laid off restaurant and catering workers.

For over 30 years, SF Marin Food Bank has provided groceries for those in need in the two counties. Before COVID-19, the organization distributed food to about 275 food pantries in schools, churches, and other community centers. Over 100 of these distribution sites had to close due to social distancing regulations in the past two months. In response to this drastic decline in distribution sites, SF Marin Food Bank started 23 pop-up pantries, five in Marin and 18 in San Francisco. To make up for the other closures, these pop-up pantries service “about five to 10 times” as many recipients as the standard pantries, said Keely Hopkins, communications manager of SF Marin Food Bank.

The regular centers operate like a big farmers market, where participants can choose what they want to take home and cook. 60% of the offerings are fresh produce supplied mostly by California farms. The food bank has been able to maintain this access to fresh produce through the crisis, but to comply with COVID-19 regulations, volunteers are pre-bagging groceries for the recipients. In addition to the fresh produce, SF Marin Food Bank receives 15% of its food from USDA federal commodities, and purchases the rest.

SF Marin Food Bank has also had to deal with the economic impact of the virus, paying “triple the price of eggs,” Hopkins said. But because the food service market for groceries has shrunk with the closing of so many restaurants, schools and hotels, occasionally the food bank has been able to work out new partnerships. “We are seeing growers, farmers, food producers, who maybe sell to restaurants but don’t have much demand, they’ve been donating to us or working with us,” Hopkins said.

The volunteer bases for the food bank have been decreased to allow for social distancing. The rules require that fewer volunteers work during each shift, which has further strained the efficiency of the pantries. Still, there are many people who want to give back to their communities in some way, and these pantries have had to get creative with how they approach the growing numbers of those turning to these services because of the pandemic. The pop-up pantries have proven to be a safe and effective alternative so far.

Hopkins commended her food bank coworkers and the volunteers for “their enthusiasm and passion and willingness to try new things, and also the enthusiasm and support we’ve seen from the community.” In an interview with Bloomberg QuickTake, pop-up pantry volunteer Tina Gonzales said, “We ask for 20 volunteers and 30 show up, just because they want to help.”

Food Runners is a smaller food distribution organization in San Francisco, founded in 1987 by Mary Risley, a former cooking teacher at Tante Marie’s and James Beard Foundation award winner for “Humanitarian of the Year” in 1998. At Food Runners, volunteers take excess perishable and prepared food from grocery stores, restaurants, and catering events and redistribute it to those in need. This helps to alleviate food waste, as excess food is donated. With almost 40% of food in the US being thrown away annually according to the US Food and Drug Administration, Food Runners contributes to both humanitarian and environmental causes through their efforts. Their mission is to “help alleviate hunger in San Francisco, to help prevent waste and to help create community,” as stated on the Food Runners website.

But with strict California state regulations in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Food Runners is unable to provide as effectively as in ordinary time. Shelters for San Francisco’s homeless, where Food Runners distributes much of the collected food, are closing or changing their capacities due to social distancing rules. “There’s more demand from individuals for food, and fewer shelters we can take food to, because they are closed,” Risley said.

Ordinarily, Food Runners operates with the help of over 250 volunteers, but with shelter in place rules, some regulars are keeping their distance. There are so many people involved in every stage of this organization: the suppliers, the volunteers, and the organizations receiving the food. Food Runner was required to follow city rules to keep the volunteers and recipients safe. Risley said, “Some [volunteers] are just staying home like we’ve been instructed to, and
some people are going and picking up food because it’s considered an essential service, helping to feed the hungry. The people that are picking up the food are being cautious. They’re washing their hands, wearing rubber gloves, maybe wearing a mask and keeping their distance.”

One company that Food Runners often collected from prior to COVID-19 was Taste Catering, women-owned Bay Area food service company. Since 1978, Taste has catered weddings, private and corporate events, and Bay Area tech company cafeterias with high end, mostly local food. Taste Catering often donated excess food to Food Runners once the cafeteria’s work days were over. “But that’s all dried up now because all the tech people are working from home,” Risley said.

As a catering business during a time when nonessential events are banned, the president of Taste Catering, Margaret Tesky, had to make a difficult decision. “On March 13th at Taste Catering I had to furlough about 350 employees. I’ll never forget the day because it was Friday the 13th and that’s what we had to do. I was obviously devastated,” Tesky said. “The next day I talked to one of my colleagues, one of the accounting executives of Taste Catering who actually happens to live here next to me in Cole Valley, and we were talking about, you know, ‘Oh my god, what can we do here?’ We felt desperate and we felt at a loss, I guess is the only way I can describe it. That’s when we developed an initiative at Taste Catering called Hospitality Helps.”

Hospitality Helps provides meals to those in the food service industry who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 closures. This initiative relies on monetary donations to create 10,000 meals per day inside the Taste Catering kitchen in Millbrae for furloughed workers. The hospitality and food service industries are some of the lowest paying in the US; and in California, the average annual income of a food industry worker is $30,720. The economic recession triggered by COVID-19 is exposing severe economic inequalities in the United States.

According to a study by Feeding America, “Workers who have service occupations or work in the leisure and hospitality industry are more likely to be food insecure and are at risk of further hardship as many businesses have been forced to close and lay off staff,” (Feeding America 2020). Tesky said, “I hope that people are beginning to see what a loss the hospitality industry is going through, and how much it’s going to impact us moving forward, and how devastated these people are.”

Tesky is now running Taste Catering with less than 10% of her original workforce. “So for the twenty people that are still there, I told them a few weeks ago, forget your job, forget your title, this is a new dawn,” Tesky said. Taste Catering is working with Copia and Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to distribution sites like shelters and food banks.

San Francisco Marin Food Bank, Food Runners and Hospitality Helps share a commitment to environmental sustainability. With COVID-19 being in the forefront of all of our minds, it’s easy to forget all the other significant things happening globally, like climate change. SF Marin Food Bank, Food Runners, and Taste Catering all help prevent food waste. Taste Catering is Green Certified, as it sources its ingredients locally whenever possible, and donates leftovers instead of tossing salvageable food into landfills. Food Runners receives and redistributes catering, restaurant, bakery and grocery leftovers. SF Marin Food Bank works in a similar way, storing donated food in their warehouses for distribution. They also take produce from farmers that would otherwise be thrown away, deemed too ugly to sell. Food Runners and SF Marin Food Bank take some of this food, preventing further waste. SF Marin Food Bank, Food Runners, and Taste Catering have all shifted how they operate in order to comply with COVID-19 mitigation policies. The three organizations responded to the crisis in ways that still feed their communities and care for their employees and volunteers.

Although burdened by the difficult decisions she’s been forced to make, Tesky is still reaching out to care for her former employees and their families. “I have seen the talents of these people that I never even knew existed,” she said. “It’s really amazing what you see. It brings out the best in people, and in the rare case it brings out the worst in people but I have to say for the most part it’s good.”

Original piece written for Arts Reporting in 2020.

Artwork by Elizabeth Oswalt