A donation bin sits near shelves with canned foods at the San Francisco Food Bank in 2008. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Donations are down at area food banks. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The weather may have warmed up and the holidays are in full swing, but for plenty of people in the Bay Area the outlook is grim.

Food banks around the Bay Area continue to face shortfalls at a time of year when demand is also the highest. At Thanksgiving, KQED reported on the drop in donations at regional food banks. The recent cold snap sent more people looking for help and put a deeper freeze on an already sluggish holiday donation season.

“The holiday saga continues,” said Kathy Jackson, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Inventory, she said, is at an all-time low. The food bank currently has less than two weeks of inventory on hand.

Second Harvest has raised just one-quarter of the $13.2 million it aims to bring in during its holiday campaign. Nearly half of the money raised for the year typically comes in during the holidays, so low holiday donations can mean thin budgets the rest of the year. The San Francisco and Marin Food Banks are also still $500,000 short for what they usually expect at this time of year, said Paul Ash, executive director. That’s down from about a $900,000 shortfall at the end of October — good news, he said, but still not good enough.

The problem is that with the economy rebounding for some, most people think there isn’t as much of a need for food banks or shelter services. But that perception is wrong.

“The economy is contributing to people thinking, ‘Well, everyone must have a job now, maybe I don’t need to give to the food bank,’ and that probably applies to other services,” Ash said.¬†“That’s just not what we’re seeing. Our lines at the pantries and the number of people we’re serving are just as high as they were a year ago.”

“We have more food going out the door than coming in the door,” Jackson said. “It’s the disconnect,” she said: If need and donations both went down or both went up, it’d be easier to deal with. But, with donations down and need remaining high, it’s causing concern among the food banks and service providers.

In addition, cuts to federally funded food-assistance programs that went into effect on Nov. 1 have also driven more people to food banks just to make ends meet. The cuts, said Ash, averaged about $30-$40 per family. That may not seem like a lot if you have enough money to pay all your bills, but some San Francisco Food Bank clients said it was the difference between buying milk for the month or not. And, the cuts often drive down the quality of food the family can afford with their food stamps, he said.

Nyla Bonner, 2, enjoys a free meal with her mother Chelan Cassidy at U.N. Plaza in San Francisco. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)
Nyla Bonner, 2, enjoys a free meal with her mother Chelan Cassidy at U.N. Plaza in San Francisco. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

The cold snap that sent a number of homeless residents to emergency rooms and killed four people in Santa Clara County will also have consequences for those having trouble putting food on their tables. When budgets are tapped for higher heating bills, people will have less money for food and will need assistance even more.

Jackson said the freezing weather of the past couple of weeks may cut the volume of surplus crops that Second Harvest and other food banks depend on. Jackson said that food is usually available for “pennies on the pound.” Without it, they’ll have to buy canned produce to replace it.

As the food banks struggle to deal with the decreasing supply and increasing demand, shelters have rushed to open their doors during the cold. San Francisco initiated a “cold snap procedure,” which instructs city shelters to let people into any empty beds after 8 p.m. when the temperature is below 40 degrees. The city has 1,150 emergency shelter beds, which includes some winter-only beds, and about 3,500 homeless people on the streets.

While most counties in the Bay Area have emergency winter shelters, it’s rare for the weather to become dangerously cold. The recent cold temperatures made life tough for people on the streets. A KQED report on living homeless and cold in San Francisco started a discussion among our readers about what can be done and how people can help.

“It’s never too late to make a donation. They can do it right up until the champagne pops on New Year’s Eve,” Ash said.

Below are a few resources for food donations, shelters and medical and social services. Organizations encourage monetary donations; Jackson argues they can often make the dollar stretch further than you could on your own because of contracts and arrangements, such as the ones they have with growers. The list primarily came from readers and is by no means exhaustive. Please feel free to add additional suggestions in the comments.

Food Banks:

Or, if you need food, you can also call: 1-800-984-FOOD

Shelters and Service Providers:

A good place to start if you need help is at the San Francisco Department of Public Health – Homeless Services. Or, check this directory of shelters available.


Kelly O'Mara

Kelly O'Mara is a writer and reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about food, health, sports, travel, business and California news. Her work has appeared on KQED, online for Outside Magazine, epsnW, VICE and in Competitor Magazine, among others. Follow Kelly on Twitter @kellydomara.

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