When my husband and I moved to the Bay Area during the dot-com boom, we didn’t know a soul. We needed to get involved with a community and get to know people. After checking out the Buddhists and the Unitarians – even though we didn’t come from a faith tradition in DC – we decided to visit the Quaker Meetinghouse in San Francisco. It featured a prominent sign and was situated at the edge of the Civic Center, Tenderloin, and South of Market (SOMA) neighborhoods, which are also advancing edges of tech gentrification
in the city.
We knew about Quakers because I had known Joe Volk and the FCNL Middle East lobbyists during my work in DC. I admired their persistence. My husband’s Japanese-American parents and relatives had been interned during WWII. They had Quaker teachers in the camps and received support from AFSC to return home after the war.
It is a cliché to say that the people living on the streets of San Francisco are a stark contrast to the wealth of the Bay Area, but even so, walking from our car to the San Francisco Friends Meetinghouse, we were shaken by the obvious poverty, addiction, and mental illness we saw as we stepped around bodies sprawled on the sidewalks. I appreciated that the thirty people sitting inside in silence didn’t demand anything of us. The atmosphere felt like the church basement, 12-Step programs in DC where I had made some of my deepest true friendships in a notoriously snobbish city. I liked it that the meeting had no pastor or creed and that things seemed to be run by committees.
I felt hopeful that friendships would come to us from these people and from our participation in service with them. The neighborhood felt right. I knew that service was a good way to get to really know people, by making a commitment and showing up regularly. Also, parking near the meetinghouse was free on Sundays. Sometimes spirituality is a practical matter, too.
I am not inclined to speak during meetings, but I love to hear what other people have to say. When two former Peace Corps volunteers in our meeting said they were planning to start making sandwiches to hand out to people in the neighborhood on Sunday mornings, I was delighted. Next, they came up with an idea to start a food pantry on Saturdays, in the central space of the meetinghouse, as a service to our neighbors.
Not all members of the meeting were on board. Some said that they were uncomfortable with people living on the streets, didn’t know how to deal with them, or weren’t sure that we should invite them into the meetinghouse. Others said this was the most important work we should be doing. A process spanning many business meetings finally led to approval of the plan and a contract with the San Francisco Food Bank, which would deliver fruits and vegetables to the meetinghouse for free – along with proteins and carbs for nominal fees – and which we could then distribute to our neighbors. Several meeting members began to volunteer regularly, and I jumped in to help.
I found myself drawn to helping keep order in the long lines of people who gathered to wait for the pantry to open, who often arrived hours in advance. Quickly, we had over a hundred people in line every Saturday. They entered the building three at a time to shop between 12:30 and 1:30. Thus, this task I performed every week, working with our neighbors and volunteers to help keep order in the line, became my spiritual education, challenging me to look at my relationship with power (bossiness, cooperation, kindness, and conflict-avoidance), stereotypes (mine and everyone else’s), and the whole idea of charity.
The first difficult lesson I learned from the entire project was how to appreciate, talk about, learn from, and struggle with the diversity of viewpoints among our staff and clients. A large part of that lesson involved learning how a volunteer group without any one person in charge could oversee the ongoing details of a complicated system.
Several members of the meeting came every week, as did three clients from the community, and together, they became our coordinators’ group. Many of our community
volunteers had experience with other food pantries or social service agencies, and they brought different opinions and communication styles to discussions about how to allocate food and how to deal with angry or difficult clients and with each other. Some of us liked to write memos and job descriptions on Google docs, and some of us didn’t even use email. Some of us preferred to make decisions on the fly, some of us liked rules and meetings. As for me, I dug into the complicated management challenges of creating policies and lists, training people, and making sure there was enough food available every week.
In partnership with the San Francisco Food Bank, we distributed the basics: an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetable; rice or pasta; cheese, eggs, or milk; a frozen protein portion; and perhaps a box or can of something extra. Eventually, we also started receiving donations from local high-end grocery stores, including prepared salads, sandwiches, artisan bread, cakes and pastries, frozen food, expensive cuts of meat and fish, and fresh flowers.
The project required a lot of work from the coordinators. We opened our social room, set up the tables, and laid out the food so that we could then welcome our clients in to shop for themselves. We trained volunteers, worked with the San Francisco Friends School families, and oversaw clean up. We didn’t just hand each person a bag of groceries.
When this worked well, which it often did, we felt the joy and satisfaction of serving with other volunteers, solving problems, and talking to and serving our neighbors. When things didn’t go well, people got angry, blamed or criticized each other, complained endlessly, or quit. For better or worse, this became our midday Saturday Beloved Community.
I preferred to help with line outside and found myself with the power to tell people what to do, actions that were both necessary and challenging for me. Managing a line incorporated the skills of a bouncer, a therapist, and a cheerleader.
Our clients were generally single people, not many families. Most of them were Chinese-American seniors from nearby affordable senior homes. Many others were African-American, Caucasian, Asian, or Latino individuals living solely on Social Security or disability payments – in a town where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,800 a month. Some of our clients were native-born and others came from Latin America, the Philippines, other Asian countries, or from former Soviet states, and who lived in Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs), subsidized housing, or cheap apartments located south of SOMA and in the Tenderloin. We did not ask for proof of income or address. The pantry was run on a first-come-first-served basis. As a result, people came early, cut in line, saved spots for friends, tried to get extra food, or (allegedly) re-sold food on the street.
Joy came from greeting our clients with smiles and body language, joking, speculating about the delicious food surprises that week, and sharing stories about our lives. I loved seeing our clients come out from their shopping trip with a cake, pie, or special treat, and thank us again for being there. Our clients took extra bags of bread to give to their neighbors. We received red envelopes with cash and thank you cards on Chinese New Year. Often my role as line manager was to remind people that everyone was a guest, and that we had abundance. I loved this work.
The second difficult lesson I learned from the line was that we all made a lot of cultural assumptions and carried stereotypes about each other – I did, the Quaker coordinators did, the community volunteers did, and the folks in line did. This could lead to joy and understanding, or to conflict and authoritarian behavior. Here are some examples of the negative assumptions I saw people act on:
That our Chinese-American seniors might come too early, push in line, take more food, and were loudly argumentative when we tried to control them. We still had to try to control them.
That younger men in line or on the street might be aggressive, high, or drunk. This could feel threatening. We might have to call the police.
That African-Americans might be angry or take offense at slights. We had to tread carefully.
That Caucasians might be insensitive, arrogant, or clueless. We had to do better.
That many elderly clients could be easily intimidated. We had to provide a safe environment.
To better understand our elderly Chinese-American clients, I read about the starvation during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, since many of these clients were immigrants from that era. If you didn’t push, you didn’t eat. I asked our Chinese volunteers for advice and was often surprised by their answers, which directed me to be much stricter than I was comfortable with. I am devastated to see the racism being directed at Asian Americans during this year of the Covid pandemic, especially towards vulnerable seniors.
Our coordinators’ group received good training in conflict management from a veteran pantry worker from a nearby church, including how to deal with people who were angry, aggressive, high, or mentally ill. She recommended that we always work in pairs outside, stand together near an angry person, and repeat what they were saying, to show that we had heard them. We didn’t have to agree, but we should listen, and then repeat what we wanted them to do, until the situation de-escalated. I only had to call the police once – when someone who was screamingly high and angry started physically threatening our seniors with a shopping cart.
Whenever I felt anger directed at me, I tried to remember that it came from someone who was, in turn, often disrespected, or who was hungry, tired, or ill. I tried not to take it personally. When I was wrong, I tried to apologize. There was no one truth.
The third difficult lesson I learned from the line was to look at my own role as a Caucasian, economically comfortable, middle-aged woman who had plenty to eat and who was controlling access to food. Who was I to judge who deserved food and who didn’t? Who was I to make the rules about dealing with anger and loud voices? Did this make me a better person?
Eventually, we created more order and harmony in the line by starting to register clients to shop during specified timeslots, and we gave everyone a card and a number. The list was divided into three sections, and the order rotated every two months. No one was first or last all the time, and we knew how many clients to expect each week. We kept a waiting list. We learned that when the rules were clear, people were more relaxed, and everyone knew they would get their fair share.
Towards the end of the project, we stopped working with the San Francisco Food Bank and relied solely on high-end grocery donations. People were delighted to get food they could not otherwise afford, and they loved getting fresh flowers. Everyone deserves nice things.
There are dozens of stories of joy and struggle from those working inside, but that is for another time. Most of our volunteers started each shift by shopping in the pantry themselves. In the end, we were all part of the same community – people who liked getting high-end groceries every week and who liked serving and working together. We all received as much as we gave, and gave as much as we received. Our regular volunteers quickly developed their own specialties and stations – and we all looked forward to working together every week. We couldn’t wait to see our regular clients. We distributed leftover food to nearby SROs and to a community kitchen in the Bayview neighborhood. We had our beloved Saturday community.
Then Covid-19 arrived. At first, we tried to pack bags of groceries inside the building and hand them out to a socially distanced line, but we didn’t have enough room. We worried about the health and safety of our elderly clients, and so, we decided to close.
Some of our volunteers continued to pick up food for other sites. I worked for six months with the San Francisco Food Bank, helping set up emergency pop-up pantries and supervising the long lines of people. The amount of hunger and need that I have seen during the pandemic is staggering. At one site, the Cow Palace in Daly City, I saw fifty volunteers regularly serve over 1,800 people in little more than an hour and a half.
I still get calls from our clients. The future of the Quaker Pantry on 9th Street is uncertain, as our food donations are now going elsewhere. Our volunteers are working elsewhere, too. We all miss each other very much, but we are continuing to show up as best we can. ~~~
To read an inspiring piece of photojournalism about the Food Pantry, produced by Kameron Hall, see: https://westernfriend.org/media/SF-friends-food-pantry
Paula Stinson and her husband Dan Nakamura attend the San Francisco Friends Meeting (PacYM) and live in San Bruno, CA. They have been involved with pantry activities for ten years. They currently volunteer with Food Runners, picking up grocery donations on Saturday mornings. Paula also lobbies with the San Francisco/Peninsula/Berkeley FCNL Advocacy Team.
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