Prescription For Health: How Parks Can Replace Pills

This audio piece first appeared on KALW‘s Crosscurrents and again in 2023 in recognition of a SPJ NorCal Excellence in Journalism award.

From the smallest banana slug to the tallest redwood, park ranger Katherine Wright loves introducing new visitors to the sights and sounds of San Mateo County’s beautiful outdoor spaces.

Leafy hiking trails abound at Wunderlich Park. Photo: Liza Ramrayka

As we hike a trail together at Wunderlich County Park in the town of Woodside, she points out a family of deer approaching in the tall grass just a few feet away from us. Loud birdsong resounds from above. Early afternoon sunlight squints through the redwood branches.

Ranger Wright has the enviable job of welcoming people into some of San Mateo County’s 21 parks and open spaces. And, for the past few years, she’s also been part of an initiative to connect a new group of visitors with nature.

San Mateo County is part of an innovative national program where doctors write a “prescription” for park and outdoor time to improve their patient’s physical or mental health and wellbeing.

What you get is similar to a regular prescription slip. But, instead of a list of medicines, there’s a space for your doctor to prescribe how many minutes and how often each week they’d like you to spend outdoors and in nature.

The prescribed activity could be a nature walk, a guided tour, yoga or meditation outdoors. Family activities pre-pandemic included lawn bowling and loteria — a bingo game.

Basically, it’s Mother Nature as medicine.

Activities at Wunderlich Park include horse riding at the historic Folger Stable. Photo: Liza Ramrayka

Research shows that spending regular time outdoors helps to reduce headaches and mental fatigue, lower stress, and improve mood.

Ranger Wright says that many of the patients she meets may not have ever visited their local park. Or even hiked or biked a trail. Park life might not be part of their routine, tradition, or culture. Often, she sees patients visibly relax and immediately enjoy their new surroundings.

“Like looking at the trees, listening for the bird songs. And just having a nice chance to learn more about the natural environment,” she observes.

We often see people just feel like they visibly relax out here… And just kind of being present in the moment here. Like looking at the trees, listening for the bird songs.

Park Ranger Katherine Wright, San Mateo County

San Mateo County has engaged a range of its residents in the parks program, including Tongan Pacific Islanders and the Latinx community — some of whom are in low income groups. These groups have historically been disproportionately affected by health conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health issues.

Gloria Cardenas lives in San Mateo with her husband and two teenage children. She’s just turned 50 and her family has been involved with San Mateo’s healthy lifestyles clinic for more than ten years, and with the parks program since 2019 when it started.

Cardenas’s pediatrician originally prescribed healthy eating and outdoor time to improve her children’s health. But now, she says, the whole family visits parks almost every weekend. And she has loved the social aspect of getting out and about — meeting other families, playing games in the park, and sharing healthy food.

But her favorite thing about the program is walking in the woods, and learning about the animals and plants that live there — even the banana slugs.

Cardenas says her children have become more active as a result of the program. Both have taken up wrestling in high school and her son plays tennis. He’s also developed a passion for cooking.

Families play outdoor games in Huddart Park. Photo: Gloria Cahuich-Gonzalez/San Mateo County Health

During lockdown, park rangers hosted Zoom meets for families to stay engaged in the program and offered ideas for outdoor activities in their parks that remained open.

As part of the program, health practitioners use an online system, which syncs with the patient’s existing health record to recommend outdoor activities. 

Dr. Rachel Borovina is a pediatrician who works for San Mateo County Health. For years, she’s run a healthy lifestyles clinic. And, over the past few, she’s worked with county health chief Dr. Scott Morrow on the park prescription program.

For every child aged 2 to 18 years coming in for an annual check up, Dr. Borovina and her team ask about time spent in nature or outdoors. Everyone leaves with a prescription to spend one hour twice a week outdoors. And the team puts together what they call “informational prescriptions” which list the addresses of nearby parks, and the health benefits associated with outdoor time.

Last year, San Mateo County’s Park Prescription program issued annual park passes to 800 families who qualify for the CalFresh low-income benefit.

Dr. Borovina’s program is part of a wider nationwide initiative launched in 2013 by the San Francisco-based Institute at the Golden Gate. It now has an estimated 100 programs across the country.

Yoga and meditation are suggested Park Rx activities. Photo: Gloria Cahuich-Gonzalez/San Mateo County Health

Around three quarters of these programs tackle general wellness. The remainder address specific health goals like managing anxiety and depression, or reducing stress levels. Research into impact shows participation can help reduce blood pressure and feelings of loneliness.

However, Ranger Wright notes that there are barriers, such as transportation: “If it’s not right in your backyard, like it is for some county residents, it can be challenging to get out to some of these more remote park locations,” she says.

Cost is another barrier, she says. “To enter some of the park sites, there’s a vehicle entry fee of $6. And that can be a barrier for certain people. So we were looking into that. At one of our park sites, we’ve taken that vehicle entry fee away so it’s now free to park.” However, she adds that it’s not a permanent solution because the parks need that revenue to support staff and other projects.

Park Rx families playing loteria at a community day in Huddart Park. Photo: Gloria Cahuich-Gonzalez/San Mateo County Health

But for Gloria Cardenas in San Mateo, the parks program has been a game changer. Tonight, her son wants her to pick up fresh vegetables from the market so he can cook the family dinner. The Cardenas family’s involvement in the Park Prescription program has resulted in better eating, regular exercise, and more quality time together.

And that’s a recipe for good health.

Learning From Lockdown: Supporting Teen Mental Health

Wellness counselors from Jefferson Union High School District offer online support to students

This audio piece first appeared on KALW‘s Crosscurrents

2020 was definitely not the year that recent high school graduate Anna was expecting. She’s 18-years-old and asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy. Instead of a senior year on campus with her friends, Anna spent most of it at home. In her bedroom. Logging onto classes on a laptop in her closet.

Anna says she had already experienced anxiety attacks before lockdown. But having to join classes from home introduced a whole set of new challenges. And being cooped up at home with her family was really hard.

She says they fought over the littlest of things “like who finished the peanut butter, who finished the yogurt.”

Anna’s experience is quite common. Emotional and behavioral health challenges in teens were already a growing concern before the pandemic. Shelter-in-place just made these challenges worse. So much so, reported suicide attempts increased almost two fold at some points in 2020, compared to 2019.

Research from last year found that remote learning, isolation and disruption in sleep or eating habits can all contribute to teen stress and anxiety.

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist who works in private practice with adolescents and families. She says the isolation and the lack of activity removed a huge source of how people can care for themselves. “Which has only exacerbated already existing anxiety and depression and eating disorders and all kinds of things. Family tensions, too,” says Fraser.

Teenagers are social creatures, she says. Their interactions at this age with friends and other people help them develop relationship skills and navigate emotional closeness and distance.

And social interaction is also essential for another reason. Fraser says it’s common for adolescents to compare themselves with their peers, thinking others have it all figured out.

“And so those fears get loud, and part of the way we find out that those fears are only that — fears — is by all the incidental interactions that take place in a day,” she explains.

Of course, those interactions may not always be positive. But being physically on campus can provide a safe environment for students to express themselves.

Fraser says: “So maybe they’re walking down the hall and somebody gives them a big smile or somebody runs up to them and says, ‘Hey, you know that thing you said? It totally cracked me up in class today!’”

And those things are great, she says, because that provides students with “a store of evidence to fight against the fears that they have about how they are in the world.”

In-person learning has other benefits. Anna’s parents are very strict with her, based on their own family traditions. So school was a sanctuary that allowed her to be herself and have conversations that she’d never have at home.

Anna admits that she became “kind of a loner” when her two friends moved away during lockdown: “I’m not really that much of a sociable person anymore… those were my only two friends.”

Melissa Ambrose is wellness coordinator for Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County. She hears stories like Anna’s all the time.

Ambrose says that, over lockdown, overcrowded homes, financial distress and family trauma added to students’ stress about home learning.

“These kids have had a year and a half of building the habit of lying in bed, not being dressed, eating, you know, whatever they’re eating in bed. Scrolling through Instagram, tuning into their class and napping intermittently,” she says.

To counter this, Ambrose and other Jefferson Union wellness counselors joined virtual classrooms and hosted small group chats. They also launched Instagram feeds with wellness tips and information on finding mental health counselling if you don’t have insurance.

And they hosted a suicide prevention night with breakout rooms in several languages to reach as many parents and caregivers as possible.

Other solutions to the loss of in-person time came from the students themselves. Last October, Anna and other teens in the Jefferson Union school district decided to make a podcast, called It’s Always Something. They experimented with different styles and topics. MK Munoz, who often leads the podcast discussions, says a good example of this was when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. capitol on January 6.

“That happened like five hours before our normal meeting. It’s like, yo, the capital is under attack. Y’all want to talk about it?” she says.

Making the shows gave the students a regular day and time to meet. Kind of like the locker chat and lunchtime banter that they lost last year.

Anna’s just started classes at a local community college. But she hopes to continue helping with the podcast if she has time, because she likes how being involved makes her feel.

Many California schools are working on programming for mental health this coming year. In addition to pandemic-related federal funds for K-12 schools, the state budget approved in July provides $4 billion over five years to help school and college students cope with anxiety, depression and stress.

report from a coalition of bipartisan education groups — including the California PTA and the California Teachers Association — has urged schools to use their COVID funding to support mental health programs this year.

The report recommends school districts take six weeks to offer students, families and educators what they call “a restorative restart.”

Recommendations include conducting regular student wellness screenings and providing mental health support.

Given teaching pressures, though, many schools may not take that recommended time.

Ambrose says it takes time for post traumatic stress to set in and become activated. “So I think like around December, January, we’re going to start to see the mental health impact both on the adults and the students,” she says.

Ambrose has enlisted the help of a trauma therapist who has worked with students affected by the Paradise and other California wildfires. A grant from the government’s Mental Health Student Services Act will enable the school district to deliver a Stanford-developed social emotional learning curriculum with weekly classes for ninth and tenth graders.

The district also hired three new mental health staff members. Each of its five high schools now has multiple mental health workers to support students.

Ambrose says it’s important to acknowledge that students lost some significant “connectedness and humanity and well being” over lockdown, and then tackle that. She concludes: “Our job is to recreate connections, recreate humanity, recreate resilience. And love the hell out of them and love the hell out of each other.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. For more information about mental health and wellness support, contact:

California Parent & Youth Helpline: 877-427-2736

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Textline: Text HOME to 741-741

The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ youth): 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678

Asian Americans build community solutions in face of hate

Credit: Chinese Progressive Association

This story first appeared on Al Jazeera

It’s 8:45am and Sakhone Lasaphangthong is walking through Oakland’s Chinatown district, waving hello to business owners opening up shop and greeting locals on their way to work.

Five days a week, Sakhone drives more than 80 miles (128km) from his Sacramento home for a 6-9am shift as a community ambassador. Even before he starts his day job as director of housing for a local nonprofit, Sakhone checks in with merchants, escorts older residents on errands, and sweeps the streets.

The Chinatown Community Ambassadors programme is not new; it was established in 2017 by local groups to provide added safety resources and services to the community that are culturally sensitive.

But Sakhone, a refugee originally from Laos, says it has become increasingly important to Oakland’s Asian-American residents following a year of attacks and racist graffiti on shop windows and walls.

“My job, especially right now, is to be hyper-vigilant, being aware of people coming here trying to do harm or looking for an easy victim,” the 45-year-old says.

Anti-Asian attacks

Even before the recent attacks on three separate North Georgia massage businesses by a white gunman left eight people dead, including six Asian women, Asian Americans in the Bay Area, which encompasses Oakland and San Francisco, were feeling under threat.

More than 1.7 million Asian Americans live in the Bay Area, accounting for about a quarter of the region’s total population, and making it one of the largest Asian-American communities in the US.

Among the incidents so far this year in Oakland’s Chinatown, a 16 square-block area that is home to approximately 3,000 people, a 91-year-old man was shoved to the ground last month and hospitalised with serious injuries and a 52-year-old woman was seriously injured after she was shot in the head with a flare gun in January.

Charges of assault and battery and elder abuse were brought in the former case, and assault with a deadly weapon in the latter.

Some activists and politicians ascribe the anti-Asian violence to the rhetoric used by former US President Trump and others, blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic and referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus”.

Since the pandemic began last year, thousands of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have experienced racist verbal abuse, physical attacks or microaggressions. According to a new report by a Bay Area-based monitoring group, Stop AAPI Hate, 3,795 incidents occurred nationwide between March 2020 and February 2021.

California accounted for almost half of the reported cases described in the report, and 700 were in the Bay Area alone. Businesses were by far the most common site of discrimination, followed by public streets and public parks, while online incidents accounted for about 10 percent of the reported incidents, the report found.

More than two-thirds of people were subjected to verbal harassment; one in five had experienced shunning – deliberate avoidance based on race. Women were also more than twice as likely to report hate incidents than men and many described being sexually harassed.

Community efforts

Oakland’s popular ambassador programme stems from a scheme for formerly incarcerated individuals like Sakhone, but lacks long-term funding. He is currently the only ambassador.

The Oakland Chinatown Coalition hopes to remedy that by next year by making it part of a Community Benefits District, which levies additional taxes on local property owners to fund improvements to their neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, several volunteer efforts have popped up during the past year in response to the hate attacks, particularly by younger Asian Americans. They include Compassion in Oakland, which currently has hundreds of volunteers who will chaperone anyone in Chinatown who requests help, as well as provide free translation or interpreting services. The group is also offering help to other cities interested in setting up a similar project.

Building trust is crucial to the success of these programmes, but challenges exist.

“I think there are a lot of challenges with language barriers between folks who are trying to help, and the people they’re trying to serve,” said Alvina Wong, campaign and organising director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland.

“I think the challenge is no one really knows who to trust. Everyone is just living in fear and anxiety,” she told Al Jazeera.

Wong said COVID-19 restrictions have curbed opportunities to build trust through community meetings and town halls, for example. “The digital divide is very real,” she says. “It is just so limiting because so many people can’t even get on Zoom, let alone be in a Zoom space with interpretation.”

One solution is working with community health partners to directly reach out to families who are survivors of violence and crime, she said.

Beyond policing

After the Atlanta attacks, San Francisco police last week bolstered patrols in neighbourhoods with high numbers of Asian-American residents, businesses and visitors, including Chinatown and the Sunset and Richmond districts.But Lai Wa Wu, policy and alliance director with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) that organised an anti-hate crime vigil on Saturday in San Francisco, warned against relying on policing to address the problem.

“We understand that in moments of stress, people naturally will revert to solutions or systems that they feel they know,” she said.

“We also believe that policing cannot and is not the only solution to creating real safety for our communities. We need to understand what is the real culprit of inequities and harm. We need victim services that are culturally responsive. We need to have trained bystander intervention programmes. We need to more fully resource our communities.”

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta advocacy group echoed the CPA’s stance in a recent statement, rejecting increased police presence or carceral solutions as the answers to hate crimes.

Instead, the group said assessing and addressing communities’ immediate needs should be the priority, which could include in-language support for mental health, legal, employment and immigration services.

Government responses

Meanwhile, various levels of government have sought to address the problem.

The district attorney’s office in Alameda County, which is home to Oakland, has set up a special response unit focused on anti-Asian crimes, particularly against elders. The unit includes prosecutors and members of the Oakland Asian community who can speak to victims in their native languages; all are fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin.

California state legislator David Chiu introduced a bill last month that would require the California Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish a toll-free hotline, as well as an online reporting system, to report hate crimes and hate incidents. Similar hotlines have been established in other states and parts of California, including San Francisco and Alameda County.

“Having a centralised, statewide approach to tracking hate crimes within a law enforcement agency will make all of our communities in California safer,” Chiu said in a statement.

The first Congressional hearing since 1987 on anti-Asian hate began last week, at which Asian-American lawmakers declared the US had reached “a crisis point that cannot be ignored”, as the community “has been screaming out for help”.

Back in Oakland, Sakhone’s work with housing nonprofit Family Bridges is helping connect Chinatown’s homeless population with local merchants by involving them in graffiti removal work. He says it is a small step towards strengthening the community by building trust and fostering a more caring attitude.

“It’s not fair that a lot of refugees and immigrants escaped a war-torn country, come to America to build a better life for them and their family, and to just be brutally murdered for no reason than them being Asian, is senseless,” Sakhone says.

“We need to stop that senseless violence here in America.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom fights recall

This story first appeared on Al Jazeera

In the week that Californians mark a year of lockdown living, California Governor Gavin Newsom is launching a vigorous campaign to defend his seat in a potential recall election.

Newsom, a Democrat, has largely removed himself from commenting on the recall effort until now, focusing instead on his administration’s work to reduce the spread of coronavirus and to ensure California’s 40 million residents get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

With Wednesday’s deadline looming for recall supporters to submit voter petitions to election offices in the state’s 58 counties, Newsom launched an anti-recall campaign on Monday with the tweet: “I won’t be distracted by this partisan, Republican recall — but I will fight it. There is too much at stake.”

By Tuesday, he hit the airwaves and acknowledged the recall is inevitable, telling the TV show The View: “This one appears to have the requisite signatures.”

So, what’s behind this effort to remove Newsom, who won re-election in 2018 with 62 percent of the vote?

COVID fuels the recall campaign

Recall supporters announced last week that their petition had received more than two million signatures – well beyond the roughly 1.5 million verified names that they will need to trigger a recall election. That is equivalent to 12 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in 2018.

This latest move to recall Newsom (the sixth since he took office) began life in February 2020 when Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo County Sheriff’s Office sergeant, filed a notice of intent to circulate a recall petition. It claimed that the governor has enacted laws that were detrimental to Californians, from favouring foreign nationals and overruling the will of the people on the death penalty, to creating high taxation and homelessness.

Since the petition went live last June, it has been boosted by support from critics of Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has been brutal in California. The latest figures show the state has experienced more than 3.5 million cases and about 55,000 deaths. Latino and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups have a disproportionate number of cases relative to their population in the state. Vaccine rollout inequities have resulted in Black and Latino communities not getting the shots they need. And people 65 and above have experienced a disproportionate number of deaths.

While Newsom has overseen the setup of mass vaccination sites in Oakland and Los Angeles and says equity is his “North Star” for vaccinating the state’s diverse population, community health centres say they are not receiving enough doses for their at-risk, hard-to-reach patients. Public health experts have attributed this to a “Balkanisation” of vaccine distribution, dependent upon the county or health provider.

But in a recent interview, Newsom admitted that ensuring California’s most hard-hit residents got the COVID-19 vaccine first should have been the priority all along. He recently announced California would set aside 40 percent of all vaccines for people in its most vulnerable communities. He told KQED: “In many respects, we could have gone a little earlier with this overlay.”

A recent poll conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies found fewer than one in three Californians (31 percent) thought Newsom was doing an excellent or good job in handling the pandemic overall, down from 49 percent last September.

Restrictive measures
In March 2020, Newsom enacted the first statewide stay-at-home order, limiting Californians to only essential trips for grocery shopping, medical care, walks and exercise. Non-essential businesses such as hair salons, gyms and museums were forced to shut their doors temporarily during the lockdown. At the time, Newsom argued that the measures were needed to “bend the curve” on the outbreak, and would help to ease pressure on the healthcare system and hospital beds.

The slow reopening of the state’s public schools and businesses have also caused frustration. Then there was the story of California’s unemployment benefits fraud during the pandemic. Newsom’s attendance at a Napa restaurant birthday party despite state restrictions on gatherings was another blot on the copybook. (Newsom has since admitted the latter was a mistake.)

While the strict measures won the governor praise in the face of rising coronavirus cases statewide, they have also provoked frustration among many Californians, including business owners. According to research by Yelp, about 40,000 small businesses had shut by September and half of these were permanent closures.

At his recent State of the State address, Newsom said of the stay-at-home order: “We agonised about the sacrifices it would require. We made sure that science – not politics – drove our decisions.”

Randy Economy is senior adviser for the California Patriot Coalition – the group behind the recallgavin2020 campaign. A former broadcaster who also worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Economy refutes claims that the recall campaign is a partisan one.

“Right now, 38 percent of those people who have signed our petition are anything other than Republicans,” Economy told Al Jazeera. “They are Democrats and ‘decline to state’ and third party registration individuals.”

Economy argued that the campaign has gained momentum because of the governor’s performance through the pandemic: “He has failed to lead in the time when we needed a leader. He put 40 million of us under house arrest for a year.”

Launching the anti-recall campaign on Monday, Newsom said he would fight the effort: “Getting Californians vaccinated, our economy safely reopened, and our kids back in school are simply too important to risk.”

The anti-recall campaign claims that its opponents are a “partisan, Republican coalition of anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters” who threaten California’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

Newsom’s political strategist, Dan Newman, argues that the recall is an attempt to install a Trump supporter as governor of a progressive state.

“It won’t distract or deter the governor from his focus on vaccinating and reopening,” said Newman. But a recall election will be “an enormously expensive circus for taxpayers”, he pointed out.

“It’s likely to cost taxpayers more than $100 million and that’s money – and energy and attention – that would be better served accelerating vaccinations and supporting schools so they can reopen safely and helping support small businesses and families who have suffered from the pandemic,” Newman said.

As of this week, California has administered more than 12 million vaccine doses and its COVID-19 case rate is down 27 percent in the last week. About two-thirds of the state’s counties are in red tier, which allows for limited indoor reopening of restaurants, theatres and museums. This return to normality could play well for Newsom in the event of a recall election later this year.

What happens next?

Wednesday marks the last day signatures can be gathered for the recall petition. County election officials have until April 29 to verify the signatures and if there are 1,495,709 valid signatures ultimately certified by the California secretary of state, the recall process can proceed, with an election expected by October.

The recall ballot will consist of two questions: Support for the recall and candidate choice. A majority vote is required on the first question. The candidate with the most votes on the second question would win the election, no majority required.

There have been 55 attempts in California history to recall a governor, but the only successful one was in 2003 when Democrat Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Several Republicans are signalling their interest in potentially taking on Newsom in a recall election, including conservative activist Mike Cernovich; John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018; and former San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulconer.

A recent poll by Emerson College Polling found that 58 percent of California voters think it is time for someone new and only 42 percent would re-elect Newsom, which could spell challenges ahead even if he survives a recall.

Helping Fight Food Insecurity, One Bag At A Time

Credit: SF-Marin Food Bank

This story first appeared on KALW‘s flagship show, Crosscurrents.

Before the pandemic, SF-Marin Food Bank supplied hundreds of food pantries across San Francisco and Marin. They were small affairs, usually located in neighborhood spaces like church halls and community centers where you could pick up the groceries you needed.

But COVID-19 rules around social distancing and shelter-in-place meant that model had to change.

Ellen Garcia, program manager at SF-Marin Food Bank, says: “We had many thousands of participants whose pantries were run by volunteers indoors. And the staff of the organizations that ran them felt there was no way to do so safely and they closed.”

Garcia is a nutrition consultant and teacher. For the past six years, she’s worked with SF-Marin Food Bank visiting schools, senior centers, and SRO hotels to help people make the most of their pantry produce.

Pivoting to pantries

But once shelter-in-place began, the classes were canceled and Ellen was reassigned. It became her job to get food to the people and the neighborhoods that needed it most. The solution? Pop-up pantries. 

Garcia explains: “They’re public spaces that are outdoors, basically, and some privately owned spaces that we’re allowed to use. For example, we use the parking lot at Bayview Opera House. But we’re outside, we set up an assembly line of groceries and I sort of think of it like catering a picnic, except instead of giving away a plate of food to a line of people, we give away a bag of groceries.”

Garcia remembers the first day of the first pop-up near Balboa Park in San Francisco. “We were allowed to set up on the street, outside of Denman Middle School, not inside, not in the parking lot, on the street. 

“And our delivery truck came and dropped a bunch of ingredients, and we set them up in an assembly line, and bagged these groceries and outreached to pantry participants to come and pick up their food here.” 

That first day proved to be the model for the food bank’s pop-up pantry program, which now operates at 27 outdoor locations across San Francisco and Marin. Most now attract five to 10 times the numbers seen at pantries pre-pandemic.

Meeting diverse needs

The Mission High School pantry distributes around 500 bags each Tuesday. Garcia says many participants are people who lost their jobs in local restaurants or food businesses, and don’t have access to other kinds of food assistance.

The lines outside these pop-up pantries are testament to the need. Garcia says: “We would show up at 7:30 in the morning at some of these places like Cow Palace and there would be 200 people there already. And if you show up to wait, possibly four hours for a bag of potatoes, um, you really need that help.”

Each pop-up operates one day a week. You can sign up in advance for a pick-up location and time. But walk-ins are also welcome. 

Garcia has noticed that each pantry location has its own distinct challenges and needs. “In Chinatown, a lot of our participants are mostly senior participants; we have to be so careful about the distancing.”

And there are also cultural sensitivities to think about because people are coming from all over the world and have different traditions of what they’re used to using.

Garcia says it takes 30-60 people to make each pop-up happen, including staff, volunteers and truck drivers. It’s a new challenge for the food bank which had never directly run pantries before. 

Credit: SF-Marin Food Bank

Looking ahead

Almost a year since the pop-ups began, they now serve 60,000 households each week. Volunteer numbers have doubled to 2,000 a week to keep up with this demand.

Garcia wishes the program did not have to exist but is happy that she’s making a difference: “I’m just incredibly grateful to have an opportunity to do something useful.”

The nonprofit Feeding America estimates one in six households nationally is in need of food. Increasing food aid is an early priority of the Biden administration.

But in the meantime, pop-up pantries will continue for as long as people don’t have enough food. And we need to stay six feet apart.

For more information, visit SF-Marin Food Bank.