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San Francisco’s Food Banks Struggle Under Weight of Inflation

Written by Kevin TruongPublished Oct. 26, 2022 • 9:07am
Glide volunteers and staff hands out meal boxes at Glide Memorial Church at 330 Ellis St. in the Tenderloin district on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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Every Thursday for decades, the smell of fried chicken has wafted from the Glide Foundation in the Tenderloin. The organization—known for its programs meant to help aid the homeless and the indigent—has made the weekly tradition an anchor of its Daily Free Meals Program, which offers three meals a day, 364 days a year.

More recently, however, that beloved tradition has gotten a lot more expensive. 

“Glide’s world-famous fried chicken is our most popular meal of the week, but our prices have gone up 17% in the last two years,” said George Gundry, the director of Glide’s Free Daily Meal Program. “From the low point pre-pandemic, we’ve gone up by almost 80%.”

The head of daily food program at Glide, George Gundry, poses for a portrait at Glide Memorial Church at 330 Ellis St. in the Tenderloin district on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Glide and San Francisco’s informal network of food pantries, food banks and food assistance programs are hit with a double whammy: The rising price of food has made it much more expensive to feed the needy. At the same time, the price increases are also bringing more residents into food assistance services.

John Oliver, who was sitting outside the church enjoying a cheeseburger lunch he received through Glide’s Daily Free Meals program, shook his head while recounting price increases for staples like milk and canned tuna. 

“No matter where you go, whether it’s fast food or the grocery store, everything is high,” Oliver said.

John Oliver, an SF State student, eats a free meal at Glide Memorial Church on Oct. 25, 2022. Inflation and food price increases have impacted local food banks and pantries, but Glide serves three meals per day regardless. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The year-over-year increase in grocery prices was 13% in September, similar to levels not seen since the 1980s. 

Gundry said his organization has turned to belt-tightening measures like menu changes. It has also relied more heavily on partnerships with retailers like Starbucks to help meet its commitment to provide three square meals no matter what. 

Glide gets much of its food supply from the SF-Marin Food Bank, which itself has been dealing with a surge in demand for food assistance. Pre-pandemic, the food bank was serving around 32,000 households, and although demand has waned from the peak of the pandemic, it’s still serving 55,000 households. 

Barbara Abbott, the vice president of supply chain for the SF-Marin Food Bank, said the nonprofit is struggling with the same forces affecting its clients as well as local restaurants. Unlike a for-profit business, however, it cannot raise its prices. As the holidays grow near, the scale of need is coming into stark relief. 

“To be quite honest, we were relieved that we could even find the meat, the whole chickens that we were looking for, because there’s a huge shortage right now of chickens and of turkeys,” Abbott said. “We’ve never seen anything like this, and I think if you talk to consumers, you’ll hear the same thing.”

The proof is in the prices. Abbott said last year the organization spent around $200,000 on holiday chickens. This year, the cost is coming in at more than $400,000. The cost of eggs, another staple protein for the food bank, has risen from $1.50 a dozen to $2.60 over that same time. 

Paperwork details the rising food costs for supplies needed for Glide’s meal program at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Produce, which makes up a bulk of what the food bank distributes, costs over 70% more than what the organization forecast in April.  

And then there’s fuel for the food bank’s fleet of delivery trucks, which is up more than $100,000 annually. Supply chain issues are also making it more difficult to operate.

Abbott said the food bank is heading into a big donation drive, and is trying to get the message out that it’s suffering from the same kind of sticker shock that residents are feeling at the grocery store. 

Tim Thompson, executive director of Groceries for Seniors, said he’s seen the procurement challenges first hand. While the roughly 1,100 weekly grocery bags that his organization fills and delivers with the help of SF-Marin Food Bank used to carry proteins like pork loins or ground beef, more often now it is getting alternative proteins like Beyond Meat. 

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John Frisbie eats the free meal provided at Glide Memorial Church on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“The products you used to get was a lot more diverse, now it’s a lot more uniform,” Thompson said, while noting the largely low-income seniors he serves “have become more dependent on that bag” as a core part of their diet. 

Yensing Sihapanya, executive director at Family Connections Center, said her organization has been expanding resources like its food and diaper pantries to help families manage the challenges of inflation. 

She’s noticed that inflation and the possibility of a recession are a frequent topic of conversation at the parental support groups and parenting classes the nonprofit runs.

“Every time we open our food security and grocery programs, they’re filled within the hour,” she said. 

A line of people waits to take advantage of Glide’s meal program at Glide Memorial Church on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

It’s a topic on her mind as well, as the cost to fill its resource banks continues to rise. Recently, Sihapanya said, the nonprofit was forced to change its produce supplier to help rein in expenses.  

As Glide looks forward to another holiday season, Gundry has some reasons for optimism, including headway in the organization’s negotiations for city contracts. 

One of Glide’s other traditions will also be returning in December, when House of Prime Rib owner Joe Betz again plans to donate some 3,000 pounds of prime rib for the church’s annual luncheon for the needy.

“That’s our traditional Christmas Eve meal,” Gundry said with a smile. “It’s a community favorite.”

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Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]


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