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Hunger Pains in the City of Plenty 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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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 my time, I'm downright terrible. I may not be in the One Percent fiscally, but I sure am when it comes to eating. So, I did something I've thought about doing for many years but never acted on: I volunteered on Thanksgiving.

From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., while you were watching football or basting in wine, my boyfriend and I — along with about 50 others — 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 warehouse's dry goods room, I looked like I was about to remove someone's appendix. The only operation I performed was running the machine that heat-seals one-pound plastic bags of pasta. 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. Although we'd signed up for a four-hour shift, it turned out to be less than three hours after subtracting the generous break and thank-you speech at the end. But we managed to pack more than 8,100 pounds of dry goods for hungry San Franciscans and Marinites.

While in a zen-like trance from the repetitive task of pasta-bagging, I ruminated about homelessness versus hunger as a dilemma accompanying economic hardship. Homelessness is often tied to drug use, mental illness, and other societal woes, while hunger is comparatively mundane. People work their jobs and pay their bills. Sometimes, there's just not enough money left over 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 usually 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 challenges with food security. Yet more than 80 percent of the people the Food Bank serves have roofs over their heads. (Almost by default, 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 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 the people who don't rely on its charity) by the 1,500 donation barrels around town, it is also a force multiplier for charitable giving.

The Food Bank purchases non-perishables and produce in enormous quantities from California's industrialized food network and redistributes 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 like Project Juice and Munchery — 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 guaranteed.

I've been broke, and I've been in overdraft, and I've had Sallie Mae call me continuously 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 packed 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 labor was the equivalent of adding a medicine dropper to the ocean.

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.


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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