The New York Times reports how a requirement to have clients prove that they are impoverished could get in the way of the work of San Francisco area food pantries.
Eduardo Giaconi, a volunteer, stood outside St. Gregory’s of Nyssa Episcopal Church on Potrero Hill, as he does every Friday noontime, greeting people by name as they arrived for the weekly food pantry.
“They are good people,” Mr. Giaconi said of the 1,200 households served each month, “and they need it.”
But receiving free food could soon become more difficult in San Francisco. A controversial decision involving the United Way of the Bay Area would require those who patronize pantries to prove that they are poor.
The move has caused dismay in the community that serves the indigent, and has raised concerns about the local United Way’s stewardship of a program financed by federal tax dollars. The plan could also be in conflict — either in practice or in spirit — with San Francisco’s sanctuary law, which requires no-questions-asked services for illegal immigrants.
At issue is the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In many ways it is the aid of last resort, helping finance soup kitchens, shelters and food banks.
The local United Way has taken over control of the funding and believes that too many food pantry clients are both unqualified and double-dipping.
Laura Escobar, the United Way’s director for the program, said she had heard that commercial groceries had gone to pantries to “get food and resell it at their stores.”
Neither Mr. McDonnell nor Ms. Escobar cited specific cases. A check with dozens of food bank operators found a consensus that fraud was not a problem. They say if families are going to multiple pantries, which is not against the rules, the explanation is simple: they are hungry.
Pantry operators said requests for food had doubled since the recession began, and requiring income verification would drain limited resources and raise practical concerns.
Some food pantry operators believe that the problem is that some people are looking for a mechanism to screen out illegal immigrants.
There is also the issue of illegal immigrants. In 1989, San Francisco became a sanctuary city, which means institutions cannot ask about immigration status as a condition for receiving city services or benefits. Some food banks receive city support — raising concern that they would be breaking local law by following the United Way’s directive.
“It’s the trickle down from Arizona,” said Beth Abrams, director of Grupo de la Comida, referring to the recent controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants.
The United Way’s Ms. Escobar said, “That is not the intent.”
FEMA does not require the proof that the local United Way is requiring.
Some people familiar with the situation say a type of turf battle has developed, pitting old ways of feeding the poor, like soup kitchens held at shelters with paid staff, against pantries, which tend to be run by volunteers and allow people to cook their own meals at home. FEMA spending on food banks has doubled since 2003, while money for soup kitchens has been cut 60 percent.
Sara Miles, executive director of The Food Pantry held at St. Gregory’s, said the shift in financing “challenges the social service monopoly that I suspect some would like to see restored in the city.”
Ms. Miles opposes income verification, and could lose $14,000 in FEMA financing under the new rules. However, the pantry’s doors will remain open, because most of the mountains of fresh produce in the church sanctuary have been donated by others — not via the United Way — with no strings attached.