San Francisco is a city in love with food. Known for some of the best restaurants in the country, we pride ourselves on influencing how the rest of the world eats. Frequently lost in that discussion, however, are those that not only can't afford to patronize whatever hip new spot has received the latest raves, but who struggle just to find basic sustenance each day. Whether they be homeless, or just temporarily down on their luck, there are a large number of San Franciscans who have come to depend on a host of organizations, both city-run and private, providing healthy and free meals to those who might otherwise go without. And just like many of our locally sourced and sustainable restaurants, these groups have a very Bay-Area ethos that profoundly impacts the way they operate and the leftovers of our thriving restaurant community actually play a big part in feeding the less fortunate every day.
That the number of homeless on the streets of San Francisco has remained mostly constant at roughly 6,000-7,000 over the past decade (though there are arguments over that semi-official number) belies the scale and severity of the problem of food insecurity in the City by the Bay. In 2013, a report generated by the San Francisco Food Security Task Force documented just how many of our residents go without the minimum daily requirements for food. The report defines food insecurity as "whenever the ability to acquire enough nutritious food is limited or uncertain," and notes that a chronic shortage of food can lead to a whole host of health problems.
"Food insecurity is associated with adverse health outcomes including increased stress and depression, incomplete viral suppression among HIV-positive urban poor, higher rates of hospitalization, and acute care utilization," the report explains. "It is a risk factor for chronic diseases and clinically significant hypoglycemia, and is a barrier to diabetes self-management."
Those impacted are as diverse as San Francisco itself, and include seniors, children, parents, and veterans (to name only a few groups). According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, just shy of 51,000 San Franciscans use CalFresh, the modern incarnation of food stamps, but that count under represents the number of residents who are eligible. Indeed, with CalFresh providing as little as $16 a month to some recipients, it appears that many people rely on a patchwork of private organizations to secure the food they need.
One such service, Food Runners, was started in 1987 by Tante Marie's Cooking School founder Mary Risley as a way to get excess food, both prepared and raw, from restaurants and venues around the city into the hands of the needy. Almost 30 years later, the organization collects and delivers close to 15 tons of food per week — food that would otherwise end up in the compost bin.
L'Ann Bingham, Community Liaison Representative for the non-profit, told SFist that her organization picks up from tech companies, AT&T Park, Kaiser Hospital, bakeries, and various caterers. They don't store any food, they just pick up and drop off. "We pick up very high quality food," she explained. "It's an easy thing [for donors] to do — we make it easy."
While a large portion of the food picked up is unprepared produce, some of it is ready-to-eat meals. One such example are the meals donated by Kaiser. "A meal in a Styrofoam tray might look bland/mundane on first glance, but I have learned to see it from the perspective of folks who eagerly wait for the boxes of individual meals that I deliver each Saturday," wrote volunteer Terrie Raphael on the Food Runners blog. "It is fresh, ready to eat and free. When it is hard to get to a store, hard to afford food and hard to prepare a decent meal, hospital food is very welcome."
One of the places these pre-made meals are delivered to is Zygmund Arendt House, a housing community that supports formerly homeless seniors. Opened in 2010, the 47-unit building at 850 Broderick Street is named after a WWII refugee and former railroad worker who died in 1998. Zygmunt Arendt left $6 million to the city of SF with the stipulation that it be used to help the poor and elderly. It was this money which spurred the development of the housing community.
"Always," says Raphael of her drop-offs there, "I am thanked profusely."
A very different type of Food Runners recipient is the Fraternite Notre Dame Mary of Nazareth soup kitchen. Run by a group of nuns, the organization was in the news just this past spring when motivational speaker Tony Robbins bought the nuns a building in the Mission District. Facing eviction from their original Tenderloin location (their local order was founded in 2008, and the landlord reportedly wanted to rent the building out for more money than the nuns could afford) where they served food to approximately 300 visitors a day, Robbins provided the roughly $750,000 needed for the purchase of a new building. The nuns' new location is near 16th Street BART and the city's first Homeless Navigation Center.
"All we want to do is help the homeless," Sister Mary of the Angels told the Chronicle back in February. "Homeless people often have no affection," she added in accented English, "and here we can say hello and give them some good food. I give my heart."
The food the nuns serve, adapted from whatever food donations they receive with a dash of French culinary skill, is reportedly some of the best charity food in the city. Also, as 60-year-old meal recipient Douglas Fennell told the paper, "They don't look down on us."
Food Runners also delivers to Martin de Porres House of Hospitality on Potrero near 16th Street. This self-styled "free restaurant" was founded in 1971 as a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, although it no longer has a religious affiliation. Martin's, which receives food from numerous donors in addition to Food Runners, considers itself distinct from the traditional soup kitchen.
"The distinction between soup kitchen and free restaurant has to do with how we view the people who eat at Martin's," Martin's long-time volunteer George Biniek explained to SFist. "We do not consider them 'clients,' 'bums,' 'homeless,' or any other pejorative names. They are our honored guests and we try to treat them as such."
Martin's draws all kinds — from those clearly without homes to the put-together and likely employed. Entering off Potrero Avenue, one is first greeted by a beautiful garden. A mixture of people mill around joking, smoking cigarettes, and eating the mostly vegetarian offerings. Depending on the day of the week, visitors can also obtain volunteer legal services to help deal with quality-of-life tickets or medical services.
"We are a completely donation-based organization," said Biniek. "We do not accept any government funds. Most of our food is either gotten through the Food Bank, [or] we buy at the produce market. We have a deep and long-standing relationship with Food Runners. [For example], every Saturday they collect all the unsold produce from the farmers' market and deliver it to us."
Although Martin's received international recognition back in 2007 when the Dalai Lama visited and served soup to hungry guests, it generally keeps a lower profile than some similar dining halls in town. "As opposed to Glide and St. Anthony's," observed Biniek, "we are purposely a small operation."
Indeed, the scale of St. Anthony’s makes it clear just how badly its services are needed. Located at 150 Golden Gate Avenue, the Tenderloin organization's dining room opened to guests in 1950. Unlike other soup kitchens of the time, St. Anthony's founder Fr. Alfred Boeddeker, decided to not make receiving a meal contingent upon listening to a sermon of some sort. Instead, he and the volunteers served any and all comers — of which there continue to be many.
The results of a St. Anthony's dinning room survey, published in May of this year, show both how many free meals are provided and the diversity of the people who eat there. In 2015, the organization served an average of 2,423 meal per day. Of the guests eating these meals, just over a third in 2015 self-identified as unemployed, and 46 percent identified as homeless. Twenty-five percent of guests at St. Anthony's make less than $100 a month.
Taylor Skillin, St. Anthony's Digital Media Lead, told SFist that just like the other organizations we spoke with, St. Anthony's is very much dependent on the donations of private organizations. "Our Dining Room gets nearly half its food from SF-Marin Food Bank," Skillin noted. "The Fruit Guys are also our largest donor of fresh fruit. Bi-Rite Market and Safeway are also big donors."
Serving over three-quarters of a million meals in 2014, GLIDE Memorial Church is another huge player in the daily fight against food insecurity. Providing a host of free services since the 1960s, and serving food since 1969, GLIDE serves three meals a day, 364 days a year. Alone, those would be staggering numbers. When combined with the many other organizations fighting hunger it suggests that San Francisco is a city where simply getting something to eat is a daily struggle for thousands.
When asked what city officials could do to help the work of organizations like Food Runners, L'Ann Bingham laughed and suggested something small. "Please don't give us a ticket when you see the Food Runners yellow volunteer sign on our dashboard," she implored of SFMTA meter maids. "Just please don't give us tickets."
While their battle against the SFMTA may be one the Food Runners volunteers will always lose, they're in the fight against food insecurity for the long haul — a fact which the roughly 300 organizations around the Bay that receive donations from them, and the San Franciscans that depends on those organization for daily meals, all count on dearly.