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It’s not often that a tech company and a nonprofit have goals that are so closely aligned.
Afresh Technologies, Inc., is a San Francisco-based software publisher whose use of artificial intelligence enables grocery retailers to meet customers’ demand for produce.
Similarly, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank is trying to satisfy the basic human need for nourishment, despite a dearth of volunteers to deliver the goods.
So it made sense that Afresh teamed up with the food bank and in November began offering its employees to work on the front lines handing out free staples to hungry families.
“It’s not peanut butter and baking mix,” said Afresh’s marketing coordinator Katherine Harris of the bounty, most of which is fresh produce. “It’s high-quality fresh vegetables and proteins. There are kiwis, oranges, celery and a lot of bananas ― it’s beautiful … like really healthy, nourishing food.”
The groceries also include basics such as rice, potatoes, chicken, tuna and eggs, ingredients that appeal to cultures as diverse as the languages needed to communicate with the families that flock to the giveaways — Russian, Tagalog and Korean as well as Cantonese and Spanish, said Cody Jang, associate director of community engagement at San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.
As of early January, 34 workers had signed up for one of the two shifts working on a blocked-off stretch of Lapu Lapu Street in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, where they join other volunteers once a month to set up tables at an outdoor food pantry and transfer groceries from pallets to bags.
Thirty-one Afresh staff showed up the first time and 11 the second, donating 52 man-hours to the cause to date.
The food bank’s need for volunteers is critical, having spiked along with the demand for provisions as people lost their jobs because of COVID-19.
Whereas an estimated 1,200 volunteers were involved in the distribution effort each week before the pandemic, San Francisco-Marin Food Bank now needs about 2,000 helpers weekly, Jang said.
“It’s still not enough,” he said, adding that the food bank began 2021 with 175 employees and now has 233. “We are very short.”
The combination of cash and in-kind donations from individuals and businesses along with grants used to enable the nonprofit to put meals on the tables of about 32,000 households a week; now that number has swelled to approximately 50,000.
The volume of food that increase represents is startling. In 2019, the last full year before COVID-19 burst on the scene, the food bank’s pantries distributed 48 million pounds of groceries. In 2021, they were conduits for nearly 69 million pounds.
And then there’s the broken link in the supply chain.
The approximately 240 organizations that had been staffing weekly distribution sites in San Francisco and Marin counties on behalf of the food bank — schools, churches, senior and community centers — began closing as the public health threat mounted.
“That was all blown up,” Jang said of the stoppage in the pipeline.
With no choice but to take over the job of getting food into the hands of the needy, San Francisco-Marin Food Bank established “pop-up” pantries — four in Marin County and 22 in San Francisco — that its staff runs with volunteers.
Once a week the teams work at malls, in the parking lot at Oracle Park and along sections of city sidewalks.
But if people can’t easily get to the pop-ups, the food bank will come to them.
The number of clients using the Home Delivered Groceries Program the food bank introduced before the pandemic has ballooned from about 200 per week to roughly 12,000, Jang said, noting that most are homebound seniors.
And the organization has expanded the categories of applicants who qualify for the aid: Now single parents of very young children, pregnant women, families with disabled youngsters and those whose immune systems have been weakened by infections other than COVID-19 are eligible as well, Jang said.