By Sara Miles
Thursday’s New York Times story on the conflict over funding food pantries in the San Francisco Bay Area is mercifully light on the clichés that usually accompany reporting about good works by churches. Instead, reporter Scott James tries to examine the issues of power, money, and turf that come into play when different faith-based models for feeding the hungry collide.
The Food Pantry which I founded at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco ten years ago, is one of the pantries in the “neighborhood grocery network” James writes about. This grassroots network was started by the San Francisco Food Bank in an effort to get fresh food to hungry people who weren’t being served by shelter meal programs or soup kitchens that focused largely on homeless men. The idea was to get groceries to single women and their kids (the largest group of hungry people in the Bay Area); very low-wage workers and their families, seniors and immigrants. The Food Bank enlisted churches, synagogues and community centers around the city to open their doors as distribution points for free food. People who were unlikely to take their children to soup kitchens could, instead, get groceries in a church and prepare meals at home for their families.
The response was amazing, and demand for groceries has only grown as the economy has worsened. Our pantry at St. Gregory’s began by serving 35 families and now gives groceries to over 1200, without requiring proof of income or citizenship, and without asking people to prove they deserve food. The food, mostly fresh produce, is piled up farmers-market style right around St. Gregory’s altar, which is etched with the words of Isaac of Ninevah: “Did not our Lord dine with publicans and harlots? Therefore make no distinction between worthy and unworthy; all must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.”
Over the years, the network of neighborhood pantries with a similar ethos has grown to nearly 200 sites. We’ve built strong relationships among ourselves, and with church and non-profit agencies of all sizes, sharing inspiration, work and friendship.
But, as James reports in his Times story, in a shrinking economy there are fewer resources and more competition for funds to feed the hungry. One contested source is federal FEMA money for emergency food and shelter, administered locally by the United Way, which names a board made up of representatives from organizations like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and Meals on Wheels to survey the landscape and allocate funds to different groups.
In San Francisco, most of the large, established non-profits who feed the hungry have big budgets, lots of staff, lots of overhead, many government contracts and grants, and a professionalized, social-service approach. They largely serve very poor people who are already in the system. They require clients to prove that they are “truly needy” based on intake interviews and thorough documentation of their income, and their programs have strict eligibility requirements.
The neighborhood food pantries, on the other hand, are run very cheaply, almost entirely by volunteers, many of them poor; they don’t employ development directors or staff to do screening and intake. These pantries tend to serve poor people outside the system who can’t produce official proof of income: those who work for very low wages off the books in the informal economy or service sector; undocumented immigrants; the long-term unemployed. And they tend to assume that anyone hungry enough to stand in line for three hours to get groceries should get them.
In a different climate, these different groups would be partners, working to complement each other and serve as many hungry people as possible. But in a time of turf fights over funding, the faith-based, DIY, low-cost grassroots model makes some in the social-services industry uncomfortable. Last week, San Francisco’s local United Way FEMA board announced that neighborhood pantries allow people to cheat and get food they don’t deserve. They’ve imposed new rules, under which church and neighborhood pantries will no longer get FEMA money unless, like traditional agencies, they start requiring people to verify their incomes before receiving food. Neighborhood pantries responded with outrage to the accusations of fraud. Most said they would not apply for FEMA money as long as it meant complying with the new rules.
Last week I attended a heated meeting with representatives from the United Way’s FEMA Board and dozens of neighborhood food pantries. I talked with a Methodist pastor from a Latino neighborhood who told me his pantry would close without FEMA funding, but that he wasn’t willing to demand income verification from people he knew were poor and mostly undocumented. “Of course we probably feed some people who don’t deserve it,” he said, sounding frustrated. “But wait, that’s what we’re supposed to do––we’re Christians.”
Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry, and Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.