"How much? How much?" asks a reporter in a checkered button-down and a pair of Air Jordans. He's pointing at a box of Rice Krispies cereal.
The elderly Chinese woman in the blue fleece picks up a plastic bag with two cereal boxes and says, holding up three fingers, "Three dollars! Three dollars!" She stands in a row beside eight other elderly Chinese women, behind a bus stop on Market Street near the corner of Seventh. All of them have paper bags and plastic bags and metal carts at their feet, all filled with food: Juice cartons, bags of coffee, packaged pretzel bites, and a bunch of other items.
"Nah, I don't need two. Just one. One dollar? One dollar?" counters the reporter. But the woman pushes the bag into his chest. The woman next to her in a green visor, sensing the opportunity, steps between the bartering pair holding a single box of cereal. "One dollar! One dollar!" she says.
The reporter furrows his brow, in deep thought. "You got that in chocolate?" he asks.
The underground food bazaar is in full swing. It's 1 p.m. and the lunchtime crowd bustles by. Several people stop to peruse the selection. No better food deal in the city. It's cheap because the women got most of the goods at food pantries around the city. So a dollar for a box of cereal is a dollar of profit.
The people who run the food pantries are certainly aware of this. While the majority of the tens of thousands of San Franciscans who receive the charitable goods take the food straight to their refrigerators, cupboards, and dining tables, there are others who instead take the food to Market Street. This creates a complex ethical dilemma, of course. On one hand, the sellers are exploiting the charity to turn a profit. But, then again, the sellers who benefit from this underground market, low-income immigrants who barely speak English, are the exact demographic the pantries are trying to help.
"It's a question for people to ask themselves about what they think a gift means," says Sara Miles, a spokesperson for St. Gregory's food pantry service. "If I gave you a gift, is it yours to do with what you want?"
The food pantries' range of sentiments illustrates the complexities of the dilemma. As Amy Jones, a spokesperson for Fill Up America, says, "All we can do on our end is try to do the most good we can for people in San Francisco. And if they're choosing to sell the food for whatever reason, that's between them and their conscience." Blaine Johnson, of San Francisco Food Bank, is less ambivalent. "The majority of our donations come from individual people. Their intention is that we feed people, not that we enable folks to have a side business to resell our food."
Miles, however, appreciates the impulses that created the underground charity food market. "It's not as if the reason people are hungry is because the food bank doesn't have enough food," she says. "I don't think that this is a problem. I think the problem is that it's impossible for poor people to live in San Francisco."
Some food pantries give out fliers discouraging the reselling of the goods. Some try to identify the offenders, warning them to stop before they are prohibited from the handouts. But the market lives on.
And as the reporter turns down the $1 cereal, he immediately encounters more offers. "Chicken!" says a woman in a white jacket, pointing to a whole, raw chicken wrapped in plastic at her feet.
"Chicken?" says the man. "How old? How old? Week old?"
"No, no," the woman replies. "This morning! This morning!"
"So it's been laying out here in the sun all day?"
The woman chuckles. "Three dollars."
A police officer on a bike rolls past, carefully maneuvering around the crowd of buyers before accelerating up the sidewalk. He barely glances at the scene. What the women are doing is definitely illegal – peddling without a permit, a violation of municipal code 869. And when police dole out citations to them, the officers confiscate the goods and re-donate them to the pantries. But enforcement, says SFPD officer Albie Esparza, is based on complaints, which are rare and usually stem from nearby business owners. "If there's no calls for service," he says, "we respond to more serious crimes in progress."
The underground food bazaar, after all, operates on a block littered with peddlers without a permit. This is Mid-Market, home to the city's vibrant outlaw bazaar. A dozen feet from the women, a man hawks old VHS tapes and beat-up ball caps on a picnic blanket. An older woman sells bootlegged DVDs. A middle-aged man offers discounted jewelry. Another man sells bus transfer passes. Another, cigarettes. And then there's the pack of young men at the corner of Market and Jones Street slanging weed. The women with the bags of food are hustlers on a block full of hustlers. Capitalists seizing the chance to improve their lot.
After the reporter passes on the chicken, the woman in the green visor waves him over. She pulls from her bag a bottle of Sierra Nevada beer. The reporter's eyes, naturally, widen, and he smiles. Food pantries don't serve beer. "Two dollars!" says the woman. The reporter peeks in her bag and sees a second bottle. "Two dollars for both!" he says. "Two fifty," the woman counters. And he nods.
The woman drops the bottles into a red plastic bag and hands it to the man. She doesn't charge 10 cents. The reporter gives her three dollar bills. But as she fishes for the change, he points to a container of apple juice and says, "I'll take the apple juice and you keep that." The woman nods vigorously.
Suddenly there is a shout. "She took my food! She took my food!" One of the elderly women has become frantic. Several witnesses eagerly announce what happened: A "community ambassador," working for a local economic development agency to help monitor Market Street, snagged a juice container from the lady's cart.
"You shouldn't be selling this!" the ambassador, a young woman, says to her. "This isn't right!" The crowd, drawn to the spectacle and expanding by the second, begins to choose sides. "They shouldn't be doing that," a middle-aged woman whispers to the man beside her. "What is this, a police state?" another voice exclaims.
The buzz of debate grows louder – the ambassador justifying her action, the seller repeating, "She took my food," and the bystanders trying to sort out the philosophical conflict – until a pair of police officers, walking their beat, arrives at the scene. They speak to the woman (in either Cantonese or Mandarin), then address her peers. The crowd watches as the women pack their goods into carts and file away, around the corner of Seventh Street, out of sight.