St. Dominic’s Social Justice – Food Insecurity

I’ve asked a member of our Outreach Commission to post about the Commission’s events during this summer.  Their emphasis this summer surrounds the issue of hunger in our city.

Holy Father Dominic, pray for us!
~Fr. Isaiah Mary, OP

Dominican Shield


St. Dominic’s Social Justice recently hosted an informative talk on Food Insecurity with Nancy Hahn from Food Runners and Colleen Rivecca from St. Anthony’s Foundation. I’ve been aware of these issues within the United States for a while, but our speakers really put forth some powerful points about our community and I learned a lot from it.

So what are food security and food insecurity?

In her talk, Colleen Rivecca explained that food security is the ability to access affordable, nutritious foods safely and conveniently, the ability to prepare healthy meals (along with the knowledge needed to prepare those meals), and the resources to purchase enough nutritious food to support a healthy diet. This is how food security is defined by the San Francisco Food Insecurity Task Force Report of 2013.

Food insecurity can be seen as a government created term meant to encompass simple hunger in addition to malnutrition, resulting from a lack of food security.

This all sounds very complex. However, when one looks at a neighborhood like the Tenderloin, we can see a crisis of food insecurity taking place before our eyes. The Tenderloin, where St. Anthony’s Foundation is located, could be defined as a “food desert” because of the lack of grocery stores. It’s also what is called a “kitchen desert”, since there aren’t many ways to access nutritious, healthy food or prepare it at home. Many SROs in the neighborhood often don’t have refrigerators or ovens, so families rely on St. Anthony’s dining room or simply go unfed. There are long waiting lists for meal delivery programs, so those who are disabled and cannot get out to a food kitchen may simply go unfed as well. This creates a perfect storm for food insecurity.

At the talk, our moderator asked why people in need don’t more often come forward for help. The answer was a complex mix of stigma, shame, lack of knowledge that resources exist, and lots of bureaucratic red tape. We, as a society, are fond of dividing the poor into the “worthy poor” and the “unworthy poor”. Until 2012, California required CalFresh recipients to undergo fingerprinting. This is a process that can make a person feel criminalized for simply being poor, and works to undermine human dignity. At this point, a few parish members volunteered demoralizing stories about having received scrutiny from supermarket clerks when they attempted to buy groceries with EBT cards.

Additionally, the SF Food Insecurity Task Force Report from 2013 makes it clear that the cost of living in San Francisco prohibits an individual making minimum wage and working full time, with rent and utility expenses at an extremely low amount (around $1,150 at the time of the report’s release) would make too much money for CalFresh benefits. Additionally, Supplemental Security Income has been drastically reduced which creates hunger for many populations.

Worse yet, even if a person does get access to a government program, the allotment doesn’t last very long. Many people who show up at St. Anthony’s have run out of benefits by the first week of the month. We like to think our government programs work very well, but most who take the “Food Stamp Challenge” (most recently, celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow) ultimately fail very quickly, realizing that it’s nearly impossible to create a nutritious meal on $2.00. It’s even more difficult in the Tenderloin with limited access to grocery stores and working kitchens, let alone the time it takes to cook.

My takeaway was that food security takes time, knowledge, money, a proper place to cook with access to food, and money. It’s a dire situation in the Bay Area right now, but we can help out in many ways.

One way is by making your thoughts known to the National Commission on Hunger here.

Another more direct way is by donating time to Food Runners here. They are in desperate need of drivers right now. In the Tenderloin alone, there is an overabundance of food that is thrown away, which could be used to help feed many multitudes of people.

Many companies order far too much food from catering services or make too much food for their staff lunches and banquets. This creates an excess of very high quality food that simply doesn’t get eaten and cannot be resold. Food Runners volunteers are continually delivering these untouched, perishable foods from major companies in San Francisco. As a “foodie” culture, San Francisco has many companies that cater to employees and work to retain them with quality, organic, healthy food.

The example mentioned that really amazed me was Nancy’s anecdote of picking up an enormous platter of fresh, untouched ahi tuna slices. Delivering this caliber of food that is inaccessible for those living in shelters, group homes, and youth programs is immensely satisfying to volunteers. Additionally, parishioners who are on SNAP or have experienced homelessness expressed gratitude for organizations like Food Runners, since they get to experience a decadent meal, usually reserved for those with greater incomes. That single, fresh meal can renew a weary spirit.

One of the most moving stories came from one of our own parish members who receives food from Food Runners at her non-profit organization. She had previously worked for a large tech company, so she was very familiar with the high quality food offered at these companies to retain talented employees. She said she could really feel Christ working through this organization when she saw the look on the faces of the people she served. Being able to enjoy a hot, high quality, nutritious meal, which some of us would take for granted, restored their God-given dignity. Without a food recovery program like Food Runners, this food would simply be thrown away, along with the chance to put our faith in action.

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