Bridging the Distance
“Six feet apart please, six feet apart,” I called out as I paced down a long line of food bank recipients that wrapped around the entrance. They occupied just one of several city blocks overseen by weekly volunteers like me at a pop-up pantry in San Francisco. As usual in the Sunset district, the fog provided for a chilly morning. My bright green vest glinted in the window of every passing car. I pulled colored chalk from my mesh pocket to retouch the smudged “X’s” on the damp pavement, indicating each standing marker.
Most of the people, many of them elderly Chinese, specifically Cantonese, had already been waiting for several hours. Their greetings, mannerisms, and style of dress—brightly colored, thin clothing; often sequined or stretchy knit material— reminded me of my own grandparents. Some had trolleys to assist them with the 30-pound bags they would receive, each filled with fresh produce, a box of rice, and a large pack of chicken patties. Others did little exercises as they stood in place: arm swings, toe touches, or step-ups. Anything to kill the time, but not waste it. Finally, our supervisor held up his hand to signify five minutes. Hundreds of feet shuffled back into position. Nine o’clock. Right on schedule.
Aside from the day my mom took me to GLIDE Memorial Church to provide free meals when I was ten, I had never been to a food pantry before. As a teenager growing up in an affluent part of Marin County, I’ve been sheltered. I have never struggled with getting my basic needs met. I have never known what it is like to go hungry or lack housing. Where I’m from, most families head to Lake Tahoe resorts in the middle of February for “ski week” and spend their summers traveling to the Bahamas, Japan, or Europe. Many of my peers study abroad, benefit from academic enrichment, and enroll in costly athletics or arts programs. Even during the pandemic, my family gets food delivered weekly to our doorstep. From the protective shell of this safety bubble, it’s just a fifteen-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge into the neighborhood where the food bank runs.
My first day on the job, 5 months ago, I followed everyone’s lead, filling grocery bags. Unlike the farmers market–style options available before COVID-19, participants could no longer choose specific items. When a manager asked if I could be a runner, I agreed, willing to do whatever was needed. I stood at a long table topped with six food bags; my task was to quickly replace each one taken. This was the front line.
To be honest, I started volunteering for the community service credits. I figured I’d just do two shifts and efficiently knock them out of the way. But as the day went on, I found the work gratifying. At the end of my 4-hour shift, we’d served about 1,200 families, feeding nearly six thousand individuals. Hundreds of them had stood outside for hours. Sometimes there was no movement at all, just waiting. Some waited until noon to get food.
One morning, a small old woman hobbled up from the gate. Her hair, graying from the roots, was cut short into a bob. She wore purple leggings with a light blue, pleated sweater. Her gently wrinkled eyes lit up at my warm greeting. She could have been Nai Nai (my grandma), who was herself approaching eighty-three years old, just over five feet tall and probably weighing one hundred pounds.
“The bag is very heavy today,” I warned. She acknowledged my words with a slight nod and began to lift it off the edge of the table. As she walked away, she gestured to acknowledge how hefty it really was and uttered a little laugh, then tottered back through the gate. I watched her cross the street and continue to trudge back up the block, clutching her bag of food until she was out of view. How far could she walk until it became too heavy, I wondered. How far was she from home? What if she were too sick, or forgot to bring her registration card, or missed her time slot? What led her, and all the others, to receiving groceries from us? And what would happen if the pantries ran out of food?
Prior to the pandemic and economic shutdown, food pantries served about one third of the amount they do now. The exponential increase is attributed to surging unemployment rates around the country. Many families that relied on school breakfasts and lunches no longer have access. Furthermore, since many restaurants and hotels have stopped donating, food banks themselves—like grocery stores— have faced shortages According to a New York Times article written in early April, a one volunteer recalled each day they had barely enough food for 200 cars yet there were at least 500 driving up, only to discover they had waited hours for nothing
Soaring rents here in the Bay Area, where some of the world’s richest people reside amid undistributed wealth. I’m overcome by an urge to do more. Sometimes people think their contribution means nothing. But that’s the furthest from the truth. Any kind of support—giving your time or money can reach far more than you might expect.There’s always another family in need. Until the problem of food insecurity is solved, it will continue on, without a foreseeable end. Don’t shy away from making your own impact.