On Monday morning, Carl Smith stood in one of two long lines that extended up the cracked sidewalk of a Bayview street.
He held up a hand to shade his eyes from an uncharacteristically relentless San Francisco sun, gazing past children who leaned against their mothers, who in turn leaned against a brick-and-plywood wall, past senior citizens who balanced newspapers on their head in an attempt to mute the heat, past an old friend who sucked on an inhaler before cracking another joke with the folks around him.
Then, Smith pointed beyond all those people waiting for food to a no-parking sign 20 yards away.
“When I started coming here, this line didn’t go past that sign. And at that time there was just one line. Now, it’s two lines and they both go all the way around the corner,” he said, turning to point another 20 yards away in the other direction.
Smith and his 300 fellow food seekers slowly approached the Bayview Mission Food Pantry, a produce and staple distribution site that functions out of a community leader’s backyard and garage. There, adults fill their bags with vegetables, fruits, eggs, beans and toilet paper, while children sort through books, choosing two to take home, along with a new pair of socks.
Like the majority of San Francisco’s 207 food pantries, the Bayview Mission has indeed seen its lines stretch like hungry caterpillars in the past two years — to the point where it has turned away people who can’t prove they live in the neighborhood. The burden on the pantries has increased: The San Francisco Food Bank said it’s seen the demand for its food bags increase by about 25 percent in the past year.
Meanwhile, the number of San Franciscans on food stamps has grown by some 55 percent in the past 17 months. Today, about 41,743 San Franciscans rely on food stamps, according to San Francisco’s Human Services Agency.
But despite the recent spikes, San Francisco food-security advocates say the food-stamp program is not carrying its fair share of the burden. Today, just one-twentieth of San Franciscans are on food-stamp rolls, compared to one-eighth of all Americans.
One might imagine that disparity could simply mean there’s less hunger in wealthy San Francisco than elsewhere in the nation.
But, in fact, the San Francisco Food Bank believes the opposite is true. It estimates that fully one-quarter of all children and senior citizens and about one-fifth of adults in San Francisco live each day with food insecurity. That’s compared to a national average of about 15 percent, according to the latest estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cost of living in San Francisco is a major problem for residents who need food stamps, according to food-security advocates.
A family of three must make less than $23,808 annually to qualify, and if they make that much, they’ll likely only be eligible for a monthly minimum benefit of $14, said Stacy Newman, media manager for San Francisco Food Bank.
While $23,808 may get a family of three by in the cheap-housing landscape of middle America, many San Franciscans earn more than that but still barely scrape by, Newman said. And though the burdensome bureaucracy has become slightly less onerous than it was in previous decades, it still clogs and deters people, Newman said. In California, all the adults in an applicant’s household must be fingerprinted, the food-stamp application is nine pages long and applicants must be interviewed twice at the food-stamp office.
The effect of this is that in California, only 48 percent of those eligible for food stamps are enrolled, compared to a national average of 66 percent, according to Newman.
Though the food-stamp program, formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, is federally funded, it’s administered by
individual counties. In San Francisco, the Human Services Agency is charged with administering the program.
Agency Director Trent Rhorer said San Francisco does better at outreach and administration than some other counties. As the numbers on the rolls have spiked, San Francisco has approved hiring an additional 18 workers. A call center and a help desk for people who are already on the rolls but who have questions are up and running, freeing up other employees to help enrollees.
In fact, while a recent investigation by The Associated Press found that dozens of counties across the country failed to
process food-stamp applications in the federally mandated 30-day period, Rohrer said San Francisco has no backlog and manages to process most applications within a few days.
Rhorer said San Francisco will continue to reach out to eligible people to enroll them, but there’s nothing it can do about people who simply make too much money to be eligible.
“Just because people are hungry unfortunately doesn’t mean they’re eligible for food stamps,” he said. “There’s a myriad of rules that may prevent someone from being eligible. But that’s based on federal and state rules, not our rules.”
This reality in turn burdens the programs that don’t have those rules, like the Bayview Mission Food Pantry, which simply demands that a person live in the neighborhood.
In Carl Smith’s case, he receives Supplemental Security Income, which means he’s not eligible for food stamps and he must stand in ever-longer lines each Monday for his bag of food. He said he doesn’t expect the lines to get any shorter in the near future.
“These people are not in this line because you want to be. You’re in this line because you have to be,” Smith said.
More children than ever before are showing up at San Francisco’s Summer Lunch, a program meant to provide free meals to children during the months they don’t have access to a school cafeteria.
Some 85 percent more children use the program than did two years ago, when the recession was just beginning, according to numbers provided by the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.
In 2008, the sites that serve the meals requested an average of 2,940 a day. The next year, that average leaped to 4,150 a day. This year, the sites are requesting a staggering 5,460 a day.
The program runs from mid-June to early August. The lunches are served to children up to age 18 at dozens of sites across The City. The program is federally funded but locally administered.
The increase in demand has led the department to expand the number of lunch sites from 84 last year to 105 this year, said Maurita Dunphy, coordinator of the Summer Lunch Program.
She said the sites include churches, community centers, YMCAs and summer camps, and any child can drop by for a meal.
Sometimes, children find their way to the lunch sites alone; other times they’re accompanied by their parents.
Children are not just taking advantage of the free lunches. There’s a snack program, which sites can either provide in the morning or afternoon, and demand has increased 77 percent in the past two years. In 2008, the sites requested about 2,200 snacks each day, whereas this year sites have requested about 3,900 daily, said Nicole Hatley, assistant summer lunch coordinator.
The skyrocketing use of the lunch and snack programs indicates that more parents are having trouble feeding their children on their own, said Paula Jones, director of San Francisco Food Systems.
Dunphy said one major factor in the increase is that San Francisco Unified School District has axed many of its summer school programs, which provided free lunches to thousands of low-income children.
155 Food-stamp employees, up from 137 last year
55% Increase of food-stamp caseload between January 2008 and June 2010
51% Increase in food-stamp applications per month, from 1,507 in 2007 to 2,275 this year
152,301People in San Francisco living at risk of hunger
33.5M Pounds of food distributed by San Francisco Food Bank in fiscal year 2008-09
36.5M Pounds of food it hopes to distribute this year
25% Increase in demand for Food Bank services in past year
22,418 San Francisco households served per week by Food Bank in May 2010
25,852 San Francisco households served by food-stamp program
Sources: San Francisco Food Bank, San Francisco Human Services Agency