The sign-in table at OMI Family Resource Center's Food Pantry photo by Jen Chien

Aired on Crosscurrents, February 2012

Tuesday mornings can get pretty crowded at Minnie and Lovie Ward Park in San Francisco’s Oceanview district. Up to 300 people of all ages stand or sit in front of the large recreation center, carrying shopping bags, baskets or rolling bags with wheels. They are here to pick up free produce and groceries.

This food pantry is run by the OMI Family Resource Center. It serves the OMI: Oceanview, Merced Heights, and Ingleside neighborhoods in the southwest section of San Francisco. To receive food, people have to show proof of residency in the 94112, 94116, or 94132 zipcodes.

Artrecia Thomas, who directs the pantry, says that the purpose of asking for zipcodes is that they can only serve a limited amount of people with the resources they have.

“We can’t service the whole city, you know what I mean?” Thomas says.

Last year San Francisco lost close to $600,000 in federal funding from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program. Around a quarter of that money came out of the San Francisco Food Bank’s budget. Under new guidelines, San Francisco as a city and county is no longer qualified. These new guidelines state that only counties under a certain level of poverty or unemployment are eligible for funding. If there is any city in a particular county that meets the criteria, then the whole county gets funding. For this reason, very few counties in California were actually eliminated, but San Francisco was one of those unlucky few.

This has had a huge impact on the San Francisco Food Bank, and the OMI Family Resource Center. Along with this major federal funding loss, private gifts and food donations have been down for the past couple of years. Even though there has actually been an increase in the need for food assistance, there is now less food to go around.

For the 211 food pantries in San Francisco, this has meant new organizational challenges, and a need for new strategies to meet growing need in the face of dwindling resources.

At Minnie and Lovie Ward Park, participants start lining up as early as 6am. They wait until 9:30am, when pantry volunteers begin handing out numbers, one to 300, in randomized order – even if you show up first, you could end up being last. A couple hours later, at 11:30am, the pantry opens up. A steady stream of people moves through the recreation center until 2 o’clock, filling their bags with produce, canned and dry goods.

While the system for the most part runs smoothly, people can get competitive. “The majority of the people here really rely on this pantry, every Tuesday, so I know that it can get a little crazy sometimes, because they think they’re not gonna get anything this week,” reports Thomas. She says that cutting in line is a constant issue.
Another food pantry issue that has come to light recently is recipients going to multiple food pantries, making less food available for all. Last year, there were reports of elderly, mostly Chinese women, getting free groceries and then selling them on the street. Some see it as “gaming the system,” but it also shows just how hard it has gotten to make ends meet.

Su Lam Li, a patron of the Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in Potrero Hill, says that for some Chinese seniors certain foods are seen as inedible, because of their ethnic and cultural background. Peanut butter, for example, is not part of a typical Chinese diet. She says she has told her neighbors to stop the practice of selling food. “Food’s supposed to be given away, not for sale,” she says.

Fresh, local, organic produce is being given away, not for sale, every Sunday at the Free Farm Stand in Parque de los Niños in the Mission District. The fruits and vegetables given out here are not from the Food Bank but come directly from local gardens and growers. Dennis Rubinstein, aka Tree, founded the Free Farm Stand less as a food pantry and more as an effort to create community, and to educate people about where their food comes from.

“You know, I want things to be fun, and feeling less institutional. It’s really important for people to feel like they’re not so much in a program, but part of sharing. You know, get the idea that we’re all family, we’re all here sharing the surplus together,” Tree explains.

The Free Farm Stand had operated with a first-come, first-served line-up system for several years. Last fall, the lines became too long and unwieldy and neighbors complained. Now it uses a numbered ticket system to handle the crowds, and thus far it’s been working out. Tree says there is a lot less tension now than there was before the ticket system was in place.

This growing sense of overcrowding is being watched carefully by the San Francisco Food Bank, which supplies most of the food pantries in the city. Food Bank director Paul Ash says, “We have more and more working families coming to get food assistance. And you can see right there, competition.” He points out that working people can have a harder time just getting to a pantry, and they may have less time to wait in line than retired or unemployed people.

While the Food Bank does not control how individual pantries run, it does encourage policies that reduce the amount of time people have to spend in an actual line. For some, that can be proof of residency or membership with a group, like having kids in a particular school. But other pantries are not as selective.

Sara Miles, the director of The Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s Church, has kept her doors open to all comers for over a decade. Local fifth graders often volunteer to sort produce, and Miles says they are obsessed with justice, with wanting things to be fair. She says they ask her why some people have cell phones and cars and still receive food, and how she decides who really needs food and who doesn’t. She tells them: “Look, if I’m going to sell you the food, or if I’m going to make a trade with you, then it can be fair or unfair. But if I’m going to give it to you anyway, you can’t take advantage of me.” She says the kids think this is very cool.

Still, St. Gregory’s pantry has also had to make changes to better serve the growing numbers of people in need. It now hands out blue- or red-colored cards that restrict people to getting food every other week, instead of every week.

San Francisco Food Bank director Paul Ash says, “It is difficult to come up with a model that alleviates that sense of scarcity, because there is in fact scarcity.” The Food Bank is working on plans for a centralized registry to help with the issue of people going to multiple food pantries.

Artrecia Thomas from the OMI Family Resource Center thinks this is a great idea. “I think we will be able to serve an even amount of people, and that way, everyone will get food,” she says.

Still, Tree from the Free Farm Stand cautions against too much regulation when it comes to feeding the hungry. He says that when it comes to who deserves food and who doesn’t, “You can’t really know that unless – I mean you can’t really know who’s in need.”

No matter how need is determined, or what system is used to distribute the food, the fact remains that many people in this city, county, and country, are not getting the food they need to survive. The Food Bank’s Paul Ash says that is a real indicator of where we are as a society.

He says, “The more people you have in lower-income groups, that are falling out of the system, who can’t afford a bank account, have credit card debt, who aren’t in the mainstream of society, who are going to food pantries for food assistance – that is a bad sign, and I don’t think it’s the right way for the United States to be moving.”

Aired on Crosscurrents, KALW 91.7fm, December 2011

photo courtesy of The Food Pantry


The state of California produces more than half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. Still, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from the last few years show that more than 14 percent of Californians are food insecure. Food security is a term that describes a person or family’s access to adequate and nutritious food.

In the Bay Area, food assistance programs have seen record numbers of applicants, while their budgets and donations have steadily decreased. Despite these challenges, Bay Area food banks continue to feed people through a network of more than 1,500 food pantries, children’s programs, shelters, soup kitchens, residential programs, and other emergency food providers.

Together, these programs serve over 600,000 people a month. Many of them would not exist without the help of thousands of volunteers. The Food Pantry at Saint Gregory’s of Nyssa Church in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood is one of these programs that’s completely run by volunteers. It’s also an example of a program bringing people together by sharing food.

Outside the Food Pantry, a handful of languages can be heard: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian, Spanish, English. People wait in line to pick up the free groceries that are given out every Friday to about 500 people. The recipients come from all over the city and are not restricted to specific zip codes as at some other pantries.

Sara Miles founded the Food Pantry 11 years ago, inspired by the vision of community she found at St Gregory’s. She says she found herself at church almost by accident, but felt at home immediately.

“I came to church … and I was fed and welcomed without particularly deserving it, or knowing what I was doing there,” she remembers.

That first experience made Miles want to become a part of the church. And now she really is. She’s Saint Gregory’s Director of Ministry.

The diversity in the line outside the Food Pantry is matched by an equal diversity inside the church. The volunteers who run the pantry are from many different backgrounds. They start arriving at 8am to organize and prepare groceries. The bounty is impressive, with piles of red bell peppers, oranges, bags of broccoli florets, cabbages, tomatoes, cantaloupes, dried fruit, brown rice, canned beans, bread, and frozen salmon filets.

The volunteers take several hours to sort and prepare the groceries for distribution. Then they break for a communal lunch before the first wave of recipients comes in at noon. The whole atmosphere of the place is joyous and friendly, with people smiling and chatting as they work. Miles, a former line cook, cherishes this camaraderie.

“I love the way that kitchens bring together all kinds of people, which is what you see here at the food pantry. It’s just astonishing who comes here: old Filipina evangelicals and young gay kids and Black church ladies and Latina moms and Chinese retirees. Everybody is working here and it has that kind of spirit that you get in a kitchen: where everybody is going far too fast, and making jokes and teasing each other, and eating,” says Miles.

A lot of the pantry’s volunteers first came to get food, and ended up staying to help. Dahlia Raglan was an unemployed college student five years ago, when she found herself in need. A friend told her Saint Gregory’s gave out free food.

Volunteer Nirmala Cadiz helps out in the church’s kitchen. She also started out in the line.

“Actually, I was in a bad place, and I needed some food. Like everybody else,” says Cadiz.

Eventually she asked Miles if she could help out. She’s been volunteering for about 8 years.

St. Gregory’s is one of over 200 food pantries in the city. Since the recession, more and more people are depending on these pantries but the government support that they in turn depend on is being cut at every level. Last year, the federal government cut $150,000 of funding for the San Francisco Food Bank, which supplies most of the city’s pantries. The city and county no longer qualify for funding, under revised poverty and unemployment criteria. Meanwhile, San Francisco is encountering record numbers of needy people. While those people are still being fed, everyone is feeling the pinch.

Michael Reed is the director of operations for the Food Pantry, which is also a volunteer position. He says that just two years ago the Food Pantry was able to provide groceries that would last for a whole week. Now, he says, they can only provide food for about 2 days.

“That’s a big difference. It’s not the Food Bank’s fault either, because their donations are way down,” Reed explains. “And of course the lines are getting bigger. And bigger and bigger and bigger.”

One of the reasons those lines are growing is that now more of the “working poor” can’t afford food. Founder Sara Miles says many people who have come to the pantry in the past few years never thought they would have to ask for help. She says that people who access the pantry do have jobs, they just happen to be low-wage jobs. She has also seen an increase in the numbers of retired and elderly people who are living on fixed incomes and just cannot afford food.

In the line outside the church, Charles Battat and Vera Pearce, an elderly couple say they are in that very situation. The two used to be ballroom dancers in their younger days, but now Battat has severe arthritis, and Pearce suffers from memory loss. They receive social security, but it is not enough to cover all of their expenses, so they have been coming to the Food Pantry for the last two years.

Also in line is Sushila Mulchandra, a widow. Since she walks with difficulty, a volunteer helps her up the stairs ahead of more able-bodied clients.

“I have no income at all, I don’t get food stamps, nothing. It’s very sad. I’m quite happy coming here, once a week, at least whatever I can get to eat, that’s all,” Mulchandra says.

As patrons make their way into the church to fill their bags with groceries and fresh produce, I see a lot of smiles. Volunteers greet many of the patrons by name, and an atmosphere of familiarity and laughter permeates the air. Music is playing in the background, and the vibe feels more farmers market than bread line.

Founder Sara Miles explains the importance of this camaraderie at the Food Pantry.

“People have a huge hunger to give as well as to receive,” she says.  “They want to be part of a community, and they want to reach out beyond themselves and create something together.”

Miles says that this kind of communion — where the giver and the receiver both benefit from the act of giving — is exactly what she had in mind when she founded the Food Pantry.

Galen Cranz and show hosts on the air

Here’s an interview I produced and co-hosted,  featuring Galen Cranz, author of “The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design” and Esther Gokhale, author of “8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back”, for Full Circle on KPFA.  This interview was recorded live and broadcast on 7/1/11, with hosts Jen Chien and Irene.

Esther Gokhale

Postcard from Thailand

Making New Friends

Here is the intro for the piece, which aired on Full Circle as part of a show about travel and geography:

A few years back, Jen Chien took a 6-month leave from her life to travel around Asia, visiting family in Hong Kong and China.  She also took time to discover new places and friends throughout the continent.  As she traveled, she wrote emails describing her experiences–verbal postcards for the folks back home.  Here she (re-)reads one of those emails, sent from Bangkok, Thailand.

Bangkok Sky at Dusk

Jesse Bliss

My interview with the fabulous Jesse Bliss of The Roots and Wings Project.  This interview originally aired on the program “Full Circle” on KPFA on March 11, 2011.

The Roots and Wing Project believes in the power of the past and future to ignite the present, standing strong in roots and hopeful in wings despite adversity.  The Roots and Wings Project is a politically charged, socially transformative theatre company that brings attention to truth and gives voice  to the unnamed, unspoken and misunderstood through theatrical innovation and multi-media collaboration. Fusing traditional theatre with hip-hop, poetry, music and visual art, the company unites a wide range of audiences from different communities around the world. Since its inception, The Roots and Wings Project has performed with such theatres as Los Angeles’ CASA 0101 Theatre, Theater of Note, UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Dance Theatre, San Francisco’s Phoenix Theatre and Venue 9, New York City’s Surf Reality, and Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as commissioned writing and performances for both incarcerated and public audiences. The Roots and Wings Project is fiscally sponsored by CASA 0101 Theater.


Working the crowd at the event Ig*nite at SPARC in Los Angeles

Party Collage

party animal, photo by sarah...

Just a fun little collage for a show we did about parties…

The Tea Party?

Tea Party rally by the US Capitol building on 09/12/2009

photo by Andrew Aliferis













Another commentary, this time on the current Tea Party vs. the historical Tea Party event which is its namesake.



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