California feeds much of the country. Yet many San Francisco families don’t know whether they’ll be able to put food on the table every night.

Even before COVID-19, nearly one in four residents were at risk of food insecurity, according to data from the Department of Public Health, which defines the term as lacking consistent access to adequate food for all members of a household to live healthily.

The struggle of many families, typically low-income households of color, went largely unnoticed by the general public. But that changed following the shelter-in-place mandate when the need of The City’s most vulnerable became impossible to ignore.

Newly unemployed residents stood in food bank lines that wrapped around city blocks, seniors were afraid to leave their homes and mass panic caused a rush on grocery stores that left shelves barren.

“What the pandemic did was amplify the need for food resources in our community,” said Susie Smith, deputy policy director at the Human Services Agency, a nonprofit social services organization. “It really underscored the disproportionality around BIPOC and low-income communities, and, of course the pandemic brought to light disproportionality in all of our systems.”

But hunger no longer makes headlines. Some of the emergency resources to mitigate the acute crisis will soon dry up. Those who have spent the better part of the last year trying to feed San Francisco families caution that letting up now could have dire consequences.

“People said that come June 15 we are going to go back to normal. Don’t believe that,” said Roberto Hernandez, founder of Mission Food Hub, an organization born of the pandemic to help the hard-hit neighborhood. “The majority of our members do not have a job, they have not been called back to work and a lot of them are still in debt.”

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank is the Bay Area’s largest food provider. It distributed 80 million pounds of food last year, almost double what it doled out the year prior. Like every other social services organization, it had to completely transform the way it reached the people it served.

Almost overnight, website searches for how to find food increased by approximately 400 percent, according to executive director Tanis Crosby. The Food Bank could no longer rely on its 325 farmers’ market-style pantries, through which about 80 percent of its food was distributed.

It shifted to delivery and neighborhood pop-ups so people could access food nearby or not have to leave home. They partnered with Cruise, an autonomous vehicle company, to deliver groceries.

Now, about 43 percent of Food Bank distribution goes through community partners, according to Crosby.

“That kind of innovation at scale is not something we would have contemplated prior to the pandemic,” she said.

Data from the Food Bank and the Human Services Agency suggests that while the number of people at risk of hunger has decreased since its astronomical peak early in the pandemic, it remains stubbornly persistent.

As recently as April 2021, $19.6 million in food assistance was distributed to San Franciscans, and monthly meal distribution remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

The Examiner spoke to local officials and community advocates about the challenge ahead. They laid out a vision for what they believe is required to ensure every family can access healthy, dignified food that sets even the most vulnerable up for longevity and well-being.

“There’s no shame in being part of a community network to receive food because food is a human right,” Crosby said. “It’s not about charity. It’s about justice.”

Work with community groups

First, The City should continue to expand its partnerships with community-based, grassroots organizations. It used this tactic more readily during the pandemic as opposed to focusing primarily on citywide operations.

These smaller groups tend to be run by neighborhood leaders who understand the peculiarities of their corner of The City and are more likely to have established relationships with hard-to-reach residents. They’re also the places many people were already going for help.

“We were just reminded that one size doesn’t fit all,” Smith said.

Support those offering more than food

Along those same lines, neighborhood organizations that provide a wide range of services can be a valuable pathway for The City to fight food insecurity, and to engage clients in other ways.

Take Mission Food Hub. It provides groceries for 7,000 households each week, many of which are Latino. Members pick up ingredients that lets them feed their families the same dishes they ate growing up, such as masa, nopales, frijoles and queso fresco.

Founded in May 2020, Mission Food also serves as a central hub for people struggling to navigate the pandemic. It’s connected residents with health care, unemployment benefits and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

“We just don’t give away food,” Hernandez said. “This is a family that we have built and we have built it out of love.”

Focus on healthy options

Advocates say every neighborhood should have local food providers whose shelves are stocked with a diverse array of healthy options.

The Healthy Corner Store Coalition works with small business owners to achieve that goal. Part of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, the program funds a new refrigeration system, as well as a total makeover of the space and services of a business consultant. In exchange, the owner sells produce and nutritious prepared meals for a minimum of three years.

It currently works with 10 stores in the Tenderloin, Bayview and Oceanview.

“What we have found, and what should be obvious, is that low-income people actually want to eat healthy food,” said John McCormick, who runs the program. He said he hopes the work helps to dispel the myth that certain families wouldn’t choose healthier options if they were given the choice.

HCSC’s approach empowers local merchants and residents to make their own decisions and take control of their own food systems, an outcome McCormick would like to see scaled up citywide.

Get lawmakers involved

Finally, there’s the question of how policy can help alleviate the hunger crisis.

Doing so inevitably requires funding from state and local budgets, and there’s reason to be hopeful.

The state budget for this fiscal year includes $1 million each for Meals on Wheels and Mission Food Hub.

Here in San Francisco, The City is investing in food security programs to the tune of $46 million. Funding could also go toward expanding social services more broadly.

“I think that food insecurity and hunger has to be put into context in peoples’ budgets as a whole,” Smith said. “Part of the answer is asking, ‘How is the safety net supporting families?’”

CalFresh, the state public food assistance program, also should be made more accessible to those who need it. According to state Sen. Scott Wiener, California has one of the lowest usage rates of supplemental nutrition assistance by eligible individuals.

He authored a law to allow seniors and people living with disabilities to access the application by phone as opposed to in person.

Many advocates push for an expansion of the program. More financial support would make it easier for people with lower incomes to take their health and food into their own hands, to give them more options and help prevent them from defaulting to the cheapest choice, according to McCormick.

As the true impact of the pandemic comes to bear, those charged with fighting hunger seem hopeful that the last year and a half will forever change what The City considers acceptable.

“I’m optimistic that we won’t return to what was previously normal,” Crosby said. “We can do better as a community.”

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