The Food Hub has proved essential during the pandemic. Now, reduced funding and new management have community leaders divided on its future.
[Mara Cavallaro is El Tecolote’s Report for America Corps Member who reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community; photos by Benjamin Fanjoy]
On Wednesdays, Maria Milagros Hernández arrives at the Mission Food Hub line before sunrise. She sits at the corner of 19th and Harrison in a foldable chair, hand sanitizer attached to her bag, waiting.
“There are a lot of organizations,” she says. “But this is the best.” There’s milk, fresh vegetables, rice, beans, potatoes, celery, garlic. “It helps a lot.”
By 9 a.m., the line wraps around three city blocks, and volunteers begin to organize dozens of pallets and crates of food. They weave from the street to the Mission Language and Vocational School (MLVS) warehouse, and back again — unloading groceries, organizing boxes, answering questions. Upstairs, the Latino Task Force’s resource hubs provide support with immigration, rent relief, emergency funds, and more — services the coalition began offering to meet the needs expressed by people in line for food. Since COVID, the whole building has become synonymous with support. It’s a community center where you can go to get food, get vaccinated, and get help.
But the food hub — or at least part of it — is set to move, following a contract bid process established and decided by the city. Dolores Street Community Services, the non-profit that has managed the food hub since winning the city’s contract bid for it in August, is “currently looking for a new location from which to operate the weekly food distribution program funded by the [Human Services Agency],” the organization informed over email.
What exactly that will mean, though, remains to be seen — and varies depending on who you ask. For Tracy Gallardo, one of the founders of the Latino Task Force (LTF), “the Mission Food Hub as the community knows it will end January 31st” and “the service will not be provided at the Latino Task Force site.” Dolores Street’s executive director, Laura Valdez, says that moving out by next week is unlikely. And Roberto Hernández, the Mission Food Hub’s founder, guarantees that distribution at the Mission Food Hub’s current site will continue, regardless of Dolores Street’s move. “We are not abandoning 701. We are going to continue,” he told El Tecolote.
The big picture, according to Hernández, is the city’s repeated failure to feed and protect our communities. And understanding the Mission Food Hub’s future means looking towards its past — and the fight to get the city to fund the program at all.
Born out of necessity
When COVID first hit, the Mission Food Hub was established as a community-led response. Like local testing sites, the food program emerged under the umbrella of the Latino Task Force, a now well-known coalition that was created to meet the needs of Latines in the city, who were disproportionately represented in COVID cases and deaths. “I didn’t hear no plan coming from the federal government, the state didn’t have a plan, the city … Nobody had a plan. And I said we need to start a task force,” Roberto Hernández said in a documentary.
So in 2020, he scaled up food distribution from his garage to MLVS’ warehouse at 701 Alabama — expanding the reach of the community space already nicknamed Mission City Hall. “It made sense … for food distribution to be at 701. The space physically was easy to load in, to load out. It was a warehouse space; it was street-level, so it was easy for people to collect food. Everything just fit,” Aleks Zavaleta, MLVS’ executive director, explained.
Later that year, San Francisco began supporting the program with city general funds. But getting any money at all proved much more challenging than it should have been. “It was a struggle,” Hernández said. “[The city’s Human Services Agency] failed our community from day one during this pandemic … There was a lot of resistance on their part.”
When the city did begin funding the food hub, the first contract they awarded provided only $40 worth of groceries per family per week — much less than what was needed. Cultura y Arte Nativa de las Américas (CANA) and the LTF supplemented city funding by raising their own money and getting donations — what the city “should have been providing,” Hernández said.
Soon, with the infrastructure local leaders created, the Mission Food Hub became an essential resource, serving some 7,000 families every week. It has become a model for culturally competent food insecurity programs, praised even by the agency that was reluctant to fund it.
But last year, Hernández decided it would make more sense for the contract to transfer away from CANA, the cultural arts organization that held it, and to MLVS — because MLVS owned the 701 Alabama building, they had a kitchen and culinary academy, and they had also been working with the Mission Food Hub since its inception. This was “made very clear to everybody at the city level,” Hernández said.
In June, the Human Services Agency (HSA) responded, with a request for “proposals from non-profit organizations to distribute groceries to San Franciscans at the Mission Food Hub, located at 701 Alabama Street.” The bid describes the Mission Food Hub as a “trusted location,” and praises its co-location with “community based organizations with deep community roots [that] provide legal, financial, housing, educational, and health resources to low-income and marginalized San Franciscans.” It seeks an “operator” that can “continue the co-location of food distribution with the provision of these other critical services.”
MLVS applied to be the operator of the Mission Food Hub on behalf of the Latino Task Force, thinking the bid process was a formality.
However, Dolores Street, another non-profit organization that is also part of the Latino Task Force coalition, applied too — and they won the contract. “We were surprised when Dolores Street applied,” the LTF’s Gallardo said. And when they won the bid, even more so.
“We don’t understand why the moves were made, and the way that they were made,” Zavaleta told El Tecolote. So she submitted an appeal for MLVS, and in return received a scoresheet from the HSA grading the organization’s capacity to run the food hub. The rubric was filled out by three ‘readers’ — one of whom gave MLVS a six out of ten in the category dedicated to “management/supervisorial infrastructure and administrative/financial capacity to deliver the required services.” The form asks: “Does the respondent demonstrate the expertise necessary to complete the tasks proposed?”
“This is the work we have been doing for almost three years … How are you going to score an organization low on work that they are actually currently doing?” Zavaleta asked.
For the first half of this fiscal year, from July 1, 2022 to now, the Food Hub remained at 701 Alabama — and Dolores Street and the LTF agreed to a partnership during those six months. But, Gallardo says, the groups “never came up with partner agreements …” and it is now “very clear that [Dolores Street is] a standalone program,” the legislative aide told El Tecolote. “[Dolores Street] has chosen not to be at our site.”
“It would most definitely make more sense [for the food hub] to be operating in the same place [where] it has operated for three years … because everyone in the community knows that is where the food distribution site is for the Mission,” Gallardo said. The HSA even lists 701 Alabama as the address for the food distribution program in question in its bid. But “no matter where the food ends up,” she added, “the Mission needs food. Whether it’s Dolores or the Latino Task Force, I’m going to advocate that we have [city] money for food.”
Indeed, regardless of who holds the contract, city funding for food distribution in the Mission is crucial. But already this fiscal year, the Mission Food Hub has scaled down services due to insufficient resources. It’s continued funding past this June is also not guaranteed. “The mayor has told us she’s not going to fund the food hub or the resource hubs beyond this fiscal year,” Santiago Lerma, Supervisor Hilary Ronen’s legislative aide, told El Tecolote in November. “June will be here soon. It’s a lot of [people] that they’re feeding that [would] no longer have this resource, so it is a concern for us.”
The fight for funding
In San Francisco, the city budget operates on a fiscal calendar, where the start of the year is July 1. Ahead of that date every spring, the Mayor presents a draft budget to the Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative arm, and by the end of June, there is a proposed plan for spending public money.
This fiscal year, the budget had a rare surplus — of $108 million — and yet, the Mayor and Board of Supervisors made funding for both the Mission Food Hub and the LTF’s testing and vaccination programs difficult to access. In fact, in the initial city budget draft, proposed last spring, both were slated to receive no funding for the ’22-’23 fiscal year, according to Ivan Corado-Vega, the LTF’s former manager. And rather than grant the food hub a full year of funding, the city established a contract ending on January 31, 2023. Only later did they extend funding to last through June—the end of the fiscal year—and the resulting lack of clarity surrounding whether funding would stop abruptly in the new year meant preparing, just in case.
Also prior to the final budget, Mayor London Breed announced a $9.5 million cut to funding for “testing, vaccination, COVID care, and other services,” the Chronicle reported. To put the budget in perspective, $1.1 billion went to the entire Human Services Agency, the city department tasked with not only food support but also health care, employment, childcare, and more. While the HSA was not granted a budget increase from last year, the police and sheriff’s departments received a combined budget increase of $80 million this year, for a total of $1.01 billion.
“You don’t expect to see cuts to programs [when] we have a budget with a surplus,” Matthias Mormino, co-chair of the Budget Justice Coalition, told El Tecolote in September. In response, he and dozens of other community leaders gathered outside City Hall in late June to protest the Board’s decision to cut, phase out, and underfund a wide range of programs geared towards communities of color, including the Mission Food Hub. “There should be no reason why we’re standing here begging for money that belongs to us! This budget is ours,” said Eleanor Lefiti, who runs an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated women, to much applause. “We matter!”
As a result of subsequent negotiation, on June 27, funding was granted for the Mission Food Hub, which is now funded through June 2023, or the end of this fiscal year. But, crucially, total annual funding was reduced.
By mid-August, the Mission Food Hub stopped serving food on Mondays and stopped doing home deliveries to people with COVID. “Resources were greatly cut,” Juan Ulloa, who has been volunteering at the food hub for over two years, lamented. Since there is less food, fewer operational days, and shortened hours on the days the Food Hub is still open, he volunteers less now — and he wishes that weren’t the case. “Hopefully next year the city allocates more funding, so that services can [come back], and continue.”
In San Francisco, Latines are disproportionately represented in COVID cases and deaths, the population of people grieving COVID losses, and the population of people with long COVID. Here, and across the country, the long-term socioeconomic impacts of COVID’s devastation are also hitting Latinx communities particularly hard. The Abriendo Puertas National Family Study, a survey from last fall found that 36 percent of surveyed Latines “have depleted savings to pay for healthcare costs.” 22 percent have lost jobs, 24 percent felt they were “in danger of losing a job because of missed work,” and 33 percent have lost wages because they’ve missed work. “Even though we are in a different phase of the pandemic … our community continues to be profoundly impacted by economic, food, and housing insecurity,” Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, CARECEN’s Executive Director, told El Tecolote. “The need is still there. There has not been a decrease in need.”
For Corado-Vega, too, “recovery is going to be a five to ten year process for the Latino community. We were the first ones that were hit; we were hit disproportionately.” To cut funding for food insecurity programs like the Mission Food Hub or the LTF’s testing and vaccination sites would be to dismiss COVID’s socioeconomic impact on Latinx neighborhoods, and the essential workers that sustained the city during quarantine. “We were the ones cooking the food; if people were getting things delivered, we were the ones that were processing deliveries to trucks — our Black and brown communities and other communities of color were the ones … making sure that people had what they needed in a shelter-in-place environment,” he said.
Planning for the next fiscal year budget — July 2023 to June 2024 — is happening now. And keeping community programs like the Mission Food Hub, COVID testing and vaccination sites, and the LTF’s resource hubs funded by the city requires an understanding of the budget, and how to make it work for us.
“When I do the training on the budget, the first thing I tell everybody is [that] the city’s budget is about 14 billion. So don’t let anybody tell you that there isn’t enough money for what you need, and what you’re advocating for,” Mormino says. “Really important decisions get made on a Tuesday night at two in the morning, with 20 people at City Hall. And that’s not okay. We need to make sure that more people understand the city budget, that we make the city budget more transparent to people, and that people understand that members [who] they elect — whether it’s the mayor or the supervisors — are making decisions every day about how to spend the money.”
We may not all be in those meetings, but we are watching. And as we enter a fourth year of COVID, the Mission Food Hub remains as essential as ever.