T’is the season when the smells of mouth-watering victuals waft through Bay Area houses. Like from that tofu turkey you’re cooking that your mother-in-law will only pick at then tell you how delicious it was.
But it’s also the beginning of the season of giving. Which is why KQED’s Kelly Wilkinson checked in today with Paul Ash, Executive Director of the San Francisco Food Bank, the organization that collects millions of pounds of food each year; sorts, repacks, and shelves it; and finally delivers it to hundreds of local nonprofits like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and senior centers.
Edited interview transcript:
What kind of need are you seeing this year?
The need is greater this year but the increase has not been as great as it was in 2008 and 2009. Those first two years of the recession, it felt like a flood. We’re seeing a few more people this year, but compared to that it almost feels like a relief.
Our distribution is going to increase by about a million-and-a-half pounds this year. We’re going to distribute a million pounds this week alone because of the special holiday meal we’re putting together for Thanksgiving.
People this time of year are very familiar with donation bins and food drives, but a lot of organizations are now trying to make the case that cash is better than giving canned goods.
I think if you do a strict analysis, cash is probably a better way to get food to people than by donating to organizations like food banks. But I’m cautious about discouraging people to participate in food drives because often times it’s not an either/or situation.
A lot of times people, especially if there are children in the family, want to have that feeling of taking some food from their own pantry or cabinet and giving it to someone else.
This is a time of year when people are more hardwired to help out. Is it a challenge to spread that goodwill throughout the year?
It is. This is the time of year we want to give. We all of a sudden are cooking this big meal for ourselves and maybe a nice bottle of wine and we sit down with family and friends and we think, boy this is an exclusive club, there are a lot of people who can’t do this. So we want to do something for people. That’s why our volunteerships are full today and tomorrow.
We do try to tell people to come back in January and February or over the summer, when we’re feeding kids who don’t have the school meals to fall back on. And people hear that message and in January and February our volunteerships start to fill up from the overrun from the holidays.
Where does the food come from and what happens when it gets here?
It comes from donations and food drives that our volunteers go through and sort. We also purchase some food. A lot of it is food that our volunteers repackage, like rice and pasta and beans. So these beans, for example, come in 2,000- pound bags, and our volunteers repackage it into one-pound family-size bags.
How many volunteers do you have?
Last year we had 25,000 different volunteers who came into the food bank.
How has the type of food coming in changed?
It’s changed in a big way over the last 10 years. Sixty-five percent of what we distribute now is fresh produce, as opposed to packaged foods. During September, the height of produce season, we had 13 different fresh produce items on the menus for distribution. It felt like walking through the produce section of Whole Foods here. Sometimes our produce is fresher than what you’d get in a grocery store because it goes right from the packing shed to the distribution center in the same day.
How big is the warehouse?
About 60-65,000 square feet.
Anything else you want to say?
One thing I’ve noticed this year is how much gratitude I see on the face of pantry recipients. There’s a palpable sense of gratitude, and I’ve been thinking to myself the last few days that I hope my own family has that sort of thankfulness for the simple things like food.