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Hunger in Chinatown: Meal programs among few pandemic lifelines for SRO residents

Danli’s meal is handed to her on Jan. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Danli Xu took only a few bites of her fried noodle lunch before closing the meal box. She knew she had to save the food for her family.

“I don’t eat too much,” said Xu, a Chinese immigrant living with her husband, mother-in-law and two toddler-age sons in a small single room in Chinatown. “But I like this meal. It has lots of ingredients.”

Danli Xu eats her meal in the “common space” of the family’s SRO in Chinatown on Jan. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Like thousands of other very low-income immigrants who reside in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, where kitchen and bathroom spaces are shared, Xu’s experience with food insecurity has worsened as the pandemic wears on. Using the communal kitchen in the building is a huge risk for her and her family—particularly amid the Omicron surge—while eating out every day would be an impossible financial burden.

Danli Xu’s mother-in-law cooks for the children in the SRO’s shared kitchen on Jan. 5, 2022. The family places newspaper on the counters to prevent cockroaches from crawling on the prepped food. | Camille Cohen

Since the start of the pandemic, multiple meal programs have come to Chinatown to help battle the growing hunger problem and keep SRO tenants safe by lessening their reliance on communal kitchens. Xu’s freshly cooked fried noodle lunch was from one such program, Feed + Fuel, an initiative of the Chinatown Community Development Center(CCDC) that launched in March 2020. Unlike many other programs of its ilk that collapsed amid cost pressures, it still serves the community nearly two years into the pandemic.

“There always has been a hunger problem in the city’s Chinese immigrant community,” said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the CCDC. “The demand is there, and it always exceeds the capacity.”

A server preps the take-out order for Danli Xu and other customers on Jan. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen

The pandemic-era meal programs connect low-income residents with Chinatown restaurants struggling to survive amid the Covid crunch; they have been widely praised for helping to unite the Chinatown community during the crisis. Social philanthropy group donations, public fundraising efforts, and government funding—the Board of Supervisor appropriated $1.9 million in 2021 specifically to feed Chinatown—pay for the meals. Participating restaurants get about $10 to $12 per meal and usually receive over a hundred orders a week.

Mei Chen, the manager of the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Vung Tau in Chinatown, said the program has done a lot to bolster her declining business—hundreds of meal orders mean thousands of dollars in revenue for hurting restaurants. “Before the pandemic, let’s say we had 10 tourists, now we only have one,” Chen said.

Danli Xu arrives at a popular Vietnamese restaurant that accepts her SRO meal tickets to place an order for lunch, on Jan. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Feed + Fuel is one of a handful of programs currently servicing the Chinatown area. Nonprofits including Self-Help for the Elderly, On Lok, and Meals on Wheels also operate food programs for the underserved in the area. San Francisco-Marin Food Bank also does regular weekly grocery distribution events in Chinatown. In May 2020, the state launched the Great Plate initiative to provide daily meals for seniors, including those in Chinatown. However, that program has since shut down.

Pam Wellner, the interim communications manager at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, told The Standard that there’s an “increase in participation” in Chinatown’s food programs, as “more people living in the Chinatown vicinity are experiencing food insecurity.” She said in a statement that the “total number of people to whom we provide food has nearly doubled since the pandemic,” going from 32,000 to 50,000 households.

Danli Xu searches for her keys outside her SRO in Chinatown on Jan. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen 

So far, the Feed + Fuel program has made about 500,000 meals available to Chinatown residents over three phases involving about 100 restaurants. Another benefit of the service? Keeping the local restaurants in operation has helped to alleviate unemployment in Chinatown. A recent survey conducted by CCDC showed that about 40% of the neighborhood’s SRO tenants are restaurant workers.

Xu’s husband works as an overnight janitor at SFO and is the sole income source for the family of five, paying $1,150 per month for the SRO rent. This qualifies the family for four meals per week from Feed + Fuel under the program’s need guidelines. On Wednesday mornings, Xu walks from her SRO apartment to the designated restaurant, shows her voucher, and picks up the meals.

Danli Xu sits on one of the two beds her family shares, while her husband sleeps. The couple’s alternating work schedules makes the sleeping arrangement possible, but they don’t get much time together. | Camille Cohen

But four meals are not enough to keep Xu out of the communal kitchen. If she has to cook dinner, she tries to finish before 3:30 p.m., when she knows it will start to get crowded and the risks of contracting Covid might increase.

“It’s so dangerous now,” Xu said.

Danli Xu walks to the top floor of the SRO, where the building’s shared kitchen is located, on Jan. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Editor's Note: Michael Moritz, who provided the initial funding for The Standard, was one of the donors to the 2020 Feed + Fuel program through his family foundation, Crankstart. Moritz is not involved in the day-to-day editorial operations of the publication.

Camille Cohen contributed additional reporting for this story.
Han Li can be reached at