Saturday, April 28, 2012

Radically Inclusive Meals in the Tenderloin

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church
San Francisco, CA
The Tenderloin is a neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco known for its high rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, and homelessness.  In 2011, San Francisco counted 6,455 homeless individuals, second only to the number in Los Angeles, and many of these people are located in the Tenderloin.  Of poor residents who do have housing, single men and seniors are likely to live in single-room occupancy housing without access to food storage or cooking facilities.

Even Tenderloin residents who have cooking facilities have very limited access to healthy food:
  • The Tenderloin is a “food desert” without a good full-service grocery store. 
  • Housing costs are so high in San Francisco that those who live on limited income have great difficulty affording food. 
  • Families on food stamps (called CalFresh) have little access to reasonably priced food.  There is a federal option under which restaurants in San Francisco may accept CalFresh benefits from homeless, elderly, or disabled people, but only certain fast-food restaurants qualify. 
All these factors mean that the need for feeding programs in the Tenderloin is extremely high.
Enter GLIDE: “A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.”
GLIDE has a long and storied history beginning in 1929 when Lizzie Glide purchased land in the heart of what is today the Tenderloin for construction of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.  Construction was completed two years later.  Fast forward to 1963, when a young African-American pastor, Cecil Williams, was appointed at Glide.  He saw clearly the social and political conditions in San Francisco and began a revolutionary remake of the church in mission to residents in the neighborhood.  You can read more about Cecil Williams in his 1992 book, No Hiding Place: Empowerment and Recovery for Our Troubled Communities.     
Bruce McKinney
GLIDE Free Meals Program Manager
Today GLIDE is many things: Between 2,000 and 3,000 people participate in their vibrant Celebrations each Sunday, and through a large array of innovative and life-changing social services, GLIDE offers food, shelter, and paths to healthier living for all. 
Perhaps most relevant to “Facing Hunger in America,” GLIDE offers a Daily Free Meals Program that serves on the order of a million meals a year, over 2500 each day, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day except New Year’s Day.
That’s a LOT of meals, and they're all prepared and served in the church's small kitchen and dining rooms. 
How does the program work?  To find out, we volunteered, chopping vegetables and serving lunch and dinner along with 20 or so other volunteers at each meal.  We also interviewed Bruce McKinney, Free Meals Program Manager at GLIDE.  
Bruce is a tall man with an imposing presence.  His father and grandfather were Unitarian ministers.  A chef by trade, and a bonsai aficionado by avocation, he’s been managing everything to do with the Daily Free Meals Program at GLIDE for over 4 years.  That includes planning menus, purchasing all the food, orchestrating all special events, conducting cooking classes, and overseeing the work of his staff of 17 people.
GLIDE empowers its community, and one piece of evidence is that Bruce’s staff was hired entirely from the community – people who dined at GLIDE or who worked here as volunteers or as part of a work requirement for General Assistance or court-ordered Community Service. 

Volunteers and staff preparing to serve dinner at GLIDE
What stood out to us as special about the Daily Free Meals Program?
  • Of course, the size.  GLIDE’s free meals program is likely the largest in San Francisco.  It’s quite amazing that so many can be served from such a small kitchen, in such a small dining room, and in such a short period of time.  The day we were there, we helped serve lunch to about 900 people (an especially busy meal because the entrée was a favorite, fried chicken) and dinner to about 600 people.  It was a hectic and tiring day!  Bruce told us that the total numbers of diners fluctuate based on how early it is in the month (more people at the end of the month when benefits have run out) and other factors such as what special events are going on and what neighboring programs, such as St. Anthony’s are serving for lunch that day.  GLIDE used to give out however many tickets were requested during the time the meal was open.  Now, due to fiscal constraints, they’ve had to limit the number of tickets for each meal in order to cut costs.
Chopping green peppers
  • It takes a lot of volunteers and staff to serve all those meals.  In addition to the cooks, security staff, and dishwashing staff, about 20 volunteers for each meal help prepare and serve meals, deliver trays, take tickets, hand out trays, fill water pitchers, and bus and clean tables.  In addition to individual volunteers, sometimes groups come from schools, churches, or community organizations.  Bruce said some of the favorite meals are the vegetarian meals prepared a few times a year by a group of Sikhs. 
  • The dining room, while loud and extremely busy, seems welcoming.  The main dining room seats 82 people at round tables to facilitate conversation, and a smaller dining room accommodates those who find the stairs down to the main dining room difficult to navigate.  Everyone is treated with respect.  Bruce said he likes to place “starry-eyed” new volunteers at the positions of taking tickets and handing diners their trays, because they don’t know anyone’s history and therefore greet everyone equally.  Carolyn and I were assigned those two jobs at lunch.

  • All are served, with no questions asked.  Diners are not asked to sign in.  They are not required to be sober or to participate in any other activity.  They simply come during the times that meals are served, get a ticket, and go to the dining room when it’s their turn.  If anyone becomes violent or abusive or has especially poor personal hygiene, they still receive a bagged meal to eat elsewhere.

  • The day we volunteered, diners were perhaps about 50% African-American.  Most were men who appeared to us to be between the ages of about 30 and 60.  Many appeared to have mental health or substance abuse issues.  We were not surprised that we saw no children (it’s not a particularly good environment for them), but we were surprised at the large number of seniors, particularly elderly Asian women.

  • Anyone still hungry after they’ve gone through the line once can go back in line and get another ticket.  From our observations, we’d guess that perhaps 10% came through the line more than once.

  • The food is really good.  Like all feeding programs, this one secures its ingredients from a variety of donations and purchases.  Bruce sources much of GLIDE’s ingredients from the San Francisco Food Bank, paying only a small handling fee.  Every meal includes fresh fruits and vegetables, much of which comes to GLIDE through a special “Farm to Family Program,” which enables the food bank to provide a supply of fresh in-season produce for free.  In addition, Bruce uses his expertise as a chef to make sure that the food is varied, high-quality, tasty, and nutritious – they serve whole wheat bread (soft to accommodate those with dental issues) and brown rice, and the cooks make their own vinaigrette salad dressing.
Bruce is constantly improving the Daily Free Meals Program.  He conducts an annual satisfaction survey and makes improvements based on the results.  But this compassionate man is under no illusion that free meals make life easy or solve the root causes of homelessness and poverty in the Tenderloin:
“We do shelter reservations at GLIDE, too, for city shelters.  People come and line up to try to get into a shelter.  Too many people are in that cycle of shelters and eating in the kitchens, being dependent.  We’re forcing them to be in this cycle, because there isn’t affordable housing in the city, so you’re on a cot or a bunk bed in a shelter.  You have to be out by a certain time, you need to be back by a certain time at night, and if you screw up, you’re out.  So, you come to GLIDE in the morning, and if you didn’t get a bed, then you need to do it again in the afternoon.  Then you’re worried about lunch, and then you’re worried about dinner, then getting back to the shelter.    
“Being homeless is a full-time job.  How the heck are you able to look for a job?  You’re living on a cot.  It’s really, really tough, and it only gets tougher.”

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