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Monday, December 7, 2015

Working With the S.F.-Marin Food Bank for the Holidays

Posted By on Mon, Dec 7, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge img_1172.jpg

Venal, self-absorbed, and completely incapable of moderation, I’m what you might call “kind of a bad person.” Sure, I support a few organizations with monthly donations, but when it comes to giving of my time, I’m outright terrible. I may not be in the financial One Percent, but I sure am when it comes to eating, so I did something I’d thought about doing for many years but never got it together to act on: I volunteered on Thanksgiving.

From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., my boyfriend and I — along with about 50 other people — helped out at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, packing rice and  pasta that would end up at one of the 450 food pantries the organization serves every week. Donning a hairnet (and a beard guard) in the massive Dogpatch facility’s dry goods room, I looked like I was about to remove someone’s appendix, but the only piece of machinery I got to operate was the machine that uses heat to seal shut plastic bags of pasta, each filled to exactly a pound. It was a bit tricky at first, as I kept overdoing it and singeing off the edges, but eventually I stopped holding up the assembly line for our table of six volunteers. There were Jock Jams to keep us moving and everyone was smiley and appreciative. Minus a generous break, a “thanks, team!” speech at the end, and an early dismissal, our four-hour shift was barely two-and-a-half hours — but we managed to pack more than 8,100 pounds of dry goods for hungry San Franciscans and Marin-ites.

click to enlarge Packing pasta. - PETER LAWRENCE KANE
  • Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Packing pasta.

In a zen-like trance from the repetitive task, I ruminated about homelessness versus hunger as a consequence of skyrocketing the cost of housing. The former is tied to drug use, mental illness, and other societal woes, but the latter is comparatively mundane. People work their jobs and pay their bills, and sometimes, there’s just not enough money for food. Homelessness is both visible and invisible — it’s impossible not to see the encampments under the Central Freeway, but many hardened urbanites are practiced at not making eye contact with street people — but hunger in America isn’t a matter of distended bellies. It’s completely invisible, and it’s all around us.

“One in four people in San Francisco and Marin struggles to put enough food on the table,” says the S.F.-Marin Food Bank’s Goldie Pyka. “You’d think, ‘That’s such a huge number. If 25 percent of people were hungry, I would see that.’ But it doesn’t look the way you think it does: It’s janitors, schoolteachers, nurses, and receptionists. It’s elderly people on a very limited, fixed income. It’s people with disabilities. It’s a lot of kids and working families.”

Obviously, homeless people face enormous issues around food security, but more than 80 percent of people the Food Bank serves have a roof over their heads. (Almost by definition, a pound of dry pasta is going to wind up in the hands of someone with a kitchen to cook it in.) And although the absolute number of hungry people in the Bay Area has gone down since the darkest days of the recession, the figures are still grim.

“It’s still higher than before the recession, especially as the price of housing continues to rise,” Pyka says. “People are paying 60 or 70 percent of their income on housing. There’s just not anything left over.”

While food drives are the staple of middle-school philanthropy, the Food Bank is more than just a permanent version of Key Club. Although best-known to people who don’t rely on its services by its 1500 donation barrels across the two counties, it’s a force multiplier for charitable giving, purchasing non-perishables and produce in enormous quantities from California’s industrialized food network and redistributing them across the region.

“We love our food drives, and we don’t ever want to discourage people,” Pyka said, “But it’s a drop in the bucket. Say you donated a can of pasta sauce worth $2.50. If you had given us the $2.50, it’s multiplied by five because that’s the scale we buy at. All of this stuff is pennies on the pound.”
As Pyka gestured toward the single aisle devoted to items the food barrels bring in — versus the rest of the warehouse, which is full of purchased items and products donated from food companies — I realized just how much the place looked like a Costco. (There were a lot of wine boxes around, but only because the cardboard is sturdy and they’re the right size for produce.)

Indeed, the Food Bank functions like a centralized wholesaler of charitable giving. Many churches have large numbers of parishioners in need, but few have loading docks to receive trucks, staff to unload them at 3 a.m., or forklifts to move goods by the pallet. So the Food Bank’s warehouse team takes on those roles, making 20 to 30 stops daily. It increases its distribution in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, to make sure that people who routinely face the prospect of skipping meals don’t do so on the days when everyone else is eating to excess. Pyka says the Food Bank “met its promises to its agency partners” this Thanksgiving, and while she’s optimistic about Christmas, nothing’s a guarantee.

I’ve been broke, and I’ve been in overdraft, and I’ve had Sallie Mae call me starting at 6 a.m. about my unpaid student debt because it’s already business hours at the outbound call center, but not once have I ever gone hungry. Some of the people with whom I helped pack elbow macaroni for a few hours had, however. Even though they were hosting their families for a big meal a few hours later, they felt compelled to give their time all the same. And our work was a medicine dropper in the face of a problem as big as the ocean, no doubt about it. Eighty-one hundred pounds of pasta is a lot of food, but once it’s gone, it’ll only be a few hours before stomachs start rumbling again.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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