Near the lifeguard station in Ocean Beach, nine homeless people have gathered. One lies in the grass of Saratoga Park, legs crossed and hat tilted over his eyes. One stands nearby, smoking a cigarette. Two others sit together and talk. Walking past, you might not notice them. But if you did, you might also wonder what they’re doing. Are they waiting for something?
It’s 3:45, Monday afternoon. It could be 3:45 on any or every one of the past 900 or so Saratoga Park Monday afternoons.
By 4:00, seven more street folks have approached. They’ve carried over threadbare bags and wheeled along rusty bicycles.
At 4:10, a white minivan pulls up, and the transients — 20 of them now — jump to attention.
The man in the van brings milk and juice for everyone.
‘‘They were just throwing this stuff in Dumpsters,” he says, as he empties out two full crates of half-pint containers. “And these people, these homeless folks, they’ve been calling 92107 their home for longer than a lot of us have. They’re good people. And they definitely deserve to eat.”
And then the anonymous big-hearted man in the white minivan drives off.
The people in the park are drinking milk and juice, but no one goes anywhere.
The man in the van isn’t what they’ve come here for. They’ve come because She comes here. Every single Monday — for the past 900 or so Mondays.
By 4:25, over 30 folks are waiting in the park. They show an unshakeable faith.
“She’s still going to come,” says one. “She’s just late sometimes.”
The crowd swells to 40. No one seems restless. They all are patient with the patience of the drifter.
Sure enough, a minute before 4:30, she comes. In a little blue pickup truck with the flatbed brimming. It’s full of food.
Lupe Haley stands all of 5 feet tall, maybe 5’2”. She sports a mane of curly red hair, lots of rouge, and bright red lipstick. She hops — hops! — out of the passenger seat, in her thick blue coat, pink hat, pink scarf, and pink boots, and she’s already calling out directions.
“Okay,” Haley says, vigorously. “Come on. Everybody!” Her words are easy to understand despite a thick Mexican accent.
Haley’s husband, who was driving the blue truck, along with several of the residentially challenged, help Haley carry armloads of drinking water, fruit punch, paper plates, plasticware, pies, bread, and paper towels. And then come the serving trays of salad, macaroni and cheese, chicken, sausage, beans, and goodness knows what else. Dozens of armloads. Everything gets carted over to a picnic table and to the grassy area around it.
This is a holidaylike feast, but today’s not a holiday. It’s just another Monday.
The thing is, Haley has fed people in Saratoga Park every single Monday evening for 18 straight years. Sometime early next year, she’ll reach her 1000th consecutive week.
Tonight, before anyone eats, Haley brings them all together. “Let’s gather now for the Word of God,” she says. “Come on everybody.”
Haley, 54, who is the pastor of New Heart Community Church in Golden Hill, launches into a sermon that begins, “Eighteen years ago, I was homeless, O Heavenly Father.”
A few sentences later, her voice rises into a hymn. Many sing along, while the red sun begins to find its way toward the pier and the waves rumble in the background.
After the Lord’s Prayer, the congregation bows its collective head. Many hold hands. And Haley leads them in saying grace.
“Now, who’s going to cut the cake?” she asks, all sing-songy, turning her attention to the food and holding out a knife.
“Here,” Haley says. “You help hand out the plates.”
The woman never stops talking and moving and buzzing with energy.
The homeless have formed an orderly line, stretching from a picnic table to the ocean, paper plates in hand. They shuffle forward to where Haley, in rubber gloves, serves them. Heaping portions for everyone.
Haley knows most of their names, and she says a few words to each as she piles hefty servings on their plates. Some of them hug her.
Erin Crowley’s been eating Haley’s Monday-night meals since January 2004. “She’s always here,” Crowley says. “Always here, no matter what.”
Is this the best meal Crowley eats all week?
“It’s definitely the biggest meal,” she says. “And it’s not bad. She makes do with what she can get. If she has to mix rice and noodles and beans together, you know…But the important thing is, she comes out with a great big pot, and there’s always plenty for everybody. And then there’s the bags we can take away for the rest of the week.”
Indeed, whoever wants a bag of bread and juice and other goods can take one.
Larry only just heard about these Monday-evening meals. “This is my third week,” he says. “Some other homeless guy over by the pier turned me on to it. One thing is, I never leave these meals with an empty stomach. I always leave full.”
Another fellow, whose bright white hair and bright white beard stand out, looks toward Haley and smiles. She’s serving the last few people with a long metal spoon. The man says in no uncertain tones, “I don’t know why she does it, but it doesn’t matter. Lupe’s a saint.”
The Taj Mahal of Food Banks
The San Diego Food Bank has been around for 30 years, 5 of them at its present location on, of all places, Distribution Drive.
You enter the San Diego Food Bank marketplace through a truck-sized opening in the wall of a warehouse. Ceiling-high stacks of pallets and cardboard boxes serve as walls. At the checkout — a desk with a computer on it and a metal floor scale for weighing goods — the warehouse clerks, Arturo Valdivia and John Bode, ring up purchases and help you get the stuff out to your car.
It’s like a regular supermarket, without any bells or whistles, and with a different kind of customer. You’re not allowed to shop here unless you’re tax exempt. In other words, you need a tax form called a 501(c)(3).
“About a quarter of all the food we distribute comes through this area,” Jim Jackson says, indicating the marketplace area of the Food Bank warehouse. “This is the interface with the public.”
Jackson is the executive director of the San Diego Food Bank. A baby boomer with a kind, smile-lined face, he stands over six feet tall. His scholarly looking glasses and gray hair contribute to a professorial air. Before Jackson came to the Food Bank, in a midcareer shift in August 2007, he spent 7 years as president of the San Diego Rescue Mission. He’s also a PhD who taught college history for 20 years.
“When someone puts something in our red barrels, that food comes here,” he says. “There was nearly 4H tons of food collected at the Chargers’ game on Sunday. Well, that all came here.”
Donated food is picked up by one of the five drivers the Food Bank keeps on staff. Some food also comes in by way of delivery.
“We get 85 to 88 thousand pounds of food from Vons every month,” Jackson states. “It’s product that they have decided they can’t use. It might be that the label is torn, or it’s nearing its expiration date. There’s a variety of reasons why they couldn’t reclaim it. And they’ve collected it together, and we’re the beneficiaries of much of what they do.”
After goods come into the Food Bank, they’re inspected, catalogued, and placed among the makeshift “shelves.” (Actually, the items are laid out on the warehouse floor in oversized shipping boxes.)
“It’s a wide variety of stuff,” Jackson says. “And we can’t always predict what’s going to come in. In addition to the cans and dry goods, we have produce. We give the produce away.”
Jackson points to the checkout scale. “Over there, people pay by the pound.”
Valdivia and Bode, the clerks, are handling a transaction. Behind them, a dry-erase board with colored marker lists prices:
Assorted Food $.20/lb
Assorted Water $.10/lb
Assorted Beverages $.15/lb
Assorted Snacks $.10/lb
Refrigerated Items $.25/lb
Assorted Frozen $.25/lb
Frozen Meat $.50/lb
Assorted Cereal $1.00/lb
Assorted Coffee $1.00/lb
Misc. Non-Foods $.25
Household Items $.50/lb
Personal Care $1.00/lb
“That helps defray the cost of running the Food Bank,” Jackson says. “We call it ‘shared maintenance fees.’ And it’s a way to keep the lights on.”
It takes an awful lot of lights to light the San Diego Food Bank warehouse. The place is huge, over 87,000 square feet. “One guy from the state came, and he looked down here and said, ‘As food banks go, this is the Taj Mahal.’ ”
But a lot of costs are associated with running a Taj Mahal–sized warehouse.
“And that,” Jackson says, “is how the agencies help.”
Agencies are the ones who get to shop at the Food Bank. Two hundred sixty-nine local agencies stock their pantries here. They’re the local tax-exempt organizations that hold a valid 501(c)(3).
Dedicated to Helping
Maria Olivas never veers and she’s always in control.
She’s driving her car and steering with her knee, talking and using her hands to punctuate her convictions and looking at directions propped on the steering wheel.
All at once.
And yet she seems…perfectly…calm.
Even after an eventual wrong turn — which isn’t her fault — Olivas pulls out a map book — without slowing down — and then stops the car for barely a moment to pinpoint her location, determine where she is and where she’s going and what went wrong. “I have no luck with MapQuest,” she says, cheerfully. “I should just use the map book.”
Turns out Olivas was a quartermaster in the Navy. For those who don’t know, Navy quartermasters are trained to be experts in navigation.
Olivas, 28, is the agency relations coordinator at the San Diego Food Bank.
“I coordinate all the relations between the Food Bank and nonprofit agencies,” she’s been saying while driving. “The agencies vary from rehabilitation centers to inner-city youth organizations, soup kitchens, day-care centers, senior centers, and churches. Anyone who has a 501(c)(3) can be a nonprofit agency. And to work with us they have to be dedicated to helping at-risk youth, seniors, and low-income populations.”
Olivas has only been with the Food Bank for about a year, but she has already visited many of the 269 agencies. She estimates that within another year or so, she will have personally visited them all.
“To monitor an agency,” Olivas says, “it isn’t just going to visit the agency. We also see what they’re purchasing in the marketplace. So, if you’re telling me you’re serving 30 people, and you come in and you want a pallet of lettuce, that’s way too much for 30 people. It doesn’t make sense. So we keep an eye on that, and we make sure the numbers match up. My job is to make sure that the food is going to the proper populations.”
Today, Olivas is paying a visit to a church pantry. Freedom in Christ in El Cajon distributes food to church members and to anyone else in its community who is in need.
She works three 12-hour days and two 8-hour days every week at the Food Bank. “I wanted to work in the nonprofit world because I came from a low-income background,” Olivas says. She grew up in Los Angeles, joined the military after high school, and was stationed in San Diego. Then she majored in anthropology at San Diego State.
She also waits tables at an Applebee’s Restaurant. And Olivas is working towards a master’s degree in public health at San Diego State. Somehow, this pretty young woman with long dark hair is as cheerful as can be.
“You work for a nonprofit because you love it,” Olivas says, using one of her favorite words. “And I truly do love it. I have had many opportunities to leave. I was in archaeology prior to being here, and I made plenty more. But I don’t mind being here 12 hours a day, because I love doing this. And then on the weekends, there’s always something to do, like a food drive or an event or trying to get donors to donate, and, you know what? I always volunteer. I’m always there. Wednesday morning we’re having a run for the hungry, and I’ll be there. It’s just something that I love to do, so I don’t mind it at all. It’s just so fulfilling and so caring and warm.”
Despite the wrong turn, Olivas rolls into the driveway for Grace Fellowship right on time for her appointment.
The church sits in a calm neighborhood, the cross streets of El Cajon, East Main to El Monte to Russell. Lots of trees, and every house has a lawn. On Sunday morning, 150 people might be singing and congregating here, right across the way from the National Guard Armory. At noon on a Monday, no other cars are on the streets, and very few are in the driveways. A distant dog barks.
Olivas gathers a few folders and a clipboard and walks up to a door at the side building of the church. She’s greeted there by Reneé Gorham, who’s in charge of the food-ministry facility for Grace Fellowship.
Gorham, a calm-seeming woman in a sweatshirt, has been with the church for 20 years. She gives the impression that she’s capable of doing all sorts of things — dressing elegantly, or talking enthusiastically, or handling busywork and a family — but at this moment, it’s noon on a Monday, and she’s only using a small percentage of her personal resources.
Olivas and Gorham enter the pantry of Grace Fellowship. It’s a small room with a foosball table, some fold-up chairs, a sofa, and cabinets that stretch from the wood floor to the low ceiling. The cabinets are full of boxes and cans and packages of food, as well as containers of lifestyle products, such as shampoos and lotions.
Gorham sits on the sofa, and Olivas takes a seat across from her on a fold-up chair, and the two begin to go over official paperwork. As Gorham fields questions in her quiet noon-hour voice, Olivas marks down her answers.
“Where do you normally get your food from?” Olivas asks.
“From the Food Bank,” Gorham answers.
“Are there any other places that you get your food from? Any donations at all?”
“Sometimes we do. We have families that buy by the case and they’ll bring stuff in.”
“And do you charge for food?”
“Any inspections by the Health Department? Generally pantries aren’t.”
“And how many households are receiving assistance from you?”
“I would say probably a minimum of 30 to 40.”
“And how many individuals?”
“I would say probably about 190 on up.”
The interview takes 20 minutes, including time for Olivas to dispense all sorts of advice to Gorham — from how to shop at the Food Bank and when, to how to disburse the food once she has it — to help Gorham make the Grace Fellowship pantry more effective and efficient.
“You practice ‘first in, first out,’ right?” Olivas asks. “The first food that comes in is the first food that goes out?”
“Oh, definitely,” Gorham answers.
Gorham says she drives a Dodge pickup to the Food Bank once every week. She spends between $80 and $150 (mostly from donations) and packs the back of her truck with hundreds of pounds of what will finally fill her pantry.
In the end, Gorham sums it up well. “It’s just a blessing to reach out to people,” she says.
Through a back door of the Food Bank warehouse, the ecstatic noise of children squealing and laughing and playing comes bubbling into earshot. At a back loading dock, dozens of kids in maroon shirts with golden St. Charles of Borromeo Academy logos line up and pass boxes along an assembly line.
“This is where the food comes in from our Food Drive,” Jim Jackson says with pride. “This is our sorting room. And this is an example of what happens here.”
The kids are having fun with their task of inspecting boxes.
Jackson says, “They’ll be looking for expiration dates and physically inspecting the containers and following certain guidelines that are explained to them. If we can’t use it, then it goes into the bin.”
Jackson estimates that, in the end, the Food Bank loses almost a quarter of the donated food that comes in. But better to be safe than sorry.
“We not only have food, but we also try to educate the public about the problem of hunger,” Jackson says. “So, when volunteers come, like these kids, and they’re obviously having a good time, but at the same time, we do an orientation, and we try to help them understand what it is that they’re doing and why hunger is such a problem.”
Strolling into the main warehouse, away from the tumult of the little helpers, Jackson turns down another pathway of ceiling-high boxes. It’s like being in the back aisles of Costco, almost.
Eventually, on the other side of the warehouse, the boxes give way to another assembly line. Jackson puts one of his hands down on the metal rollers of the line.
“Here we have a second assembly line,” he says. “So, you can get together and volunteer and come down, just like the kids did.”
He sounds hopeful. “And you can help put together boxes of food for seniors or for other targeted populations, such as women who are expecting or low-income families with little kids under six.”
The U.S. Government and U.S. Department of Agriculture have two main programs that the Food Bank helps administer. One is a supplemental food program, mainly targeted toward seniors. The other is for emergency food assistance.
The programs aren’t meant to give someone their entire diet. “But,” Jackson says, “surveys have been done, trying to figure out what’s missing from peoples’ diets. Inside the boxes for the seniors are various cans of vegetables, fruit, pasta, and canned protein sources.
“So a senior would get one of these boxes.” Jackson indicates a shoebox-sized cardboard container with red Food Bank logos on it. “We take these boxes out for distribution, and we hand them out to seniors. And it’s one of the reasons why seniors in this county are not as much at risk for food insecurity as you would think.”
At more or less the crack of dawn, on the fourth Wednesday of every month, dozens of people have already begun milling around outside the Linda Vista Recreation Center. Most are older, many are disabled, and many are Asian. They chat amiably amongst themselves as the light of day grows brighter around them.
Painted on the side of the building where they wait are two lines: “Linda Vista Recreation Center” and “Brings us all together.”
By 7:30, a Food Bank truck has shown up, and Maria Olivas and 9 or 10 volunteers have unlocked the building. At 8:00 a.m., the crowd — which has now grown to over 70 or 80 in number — files inside the gymnasium and signs in. In time, they will leave through the back with bags and/or boxes of food.
Inside, hundreds of white Target bags with their bulls-eye logo litter a series of fold-up tables. The people pick up their bags and head toward another table, where Olivas sits behind a laptop computer.
“Hi,” she says cheerily to an older Asian gentleman. “Were you here last month?” She searches her database and types a bit. “You have to renew this month,” she says. “Do you have an ID and proof of income?” The man rifles through his wallet. Olivas asks, “How many in your household?” He answers in a small, fragile voice, “Two.” Olivas says, “Okay,” and hands the man a tag. He then heads out the back door where Manny Mora gives him his allotted box of food and two-pound slab of American cheese.
Mora is one of the delivery drivers for the Food Bank. He spends most of his days driving around and picking up the food that stocks the Food Bank marketplace.
“These are the boxes for seniors,” Mora says. “Each box has peas and spinach, juice, peaches, chicken, milk, peanut butter…good stuff like that.”
Early this morning, Mora loaded nearly 100 of these boxes onto the Food Bank truck and drove them down here.
He takes a tag from a woman and helps her load a box onto her cart. Most of the people who come here for food are wheeling similar carts.
Back inside, Olivas has been wrestling through some language barriers. She speaks slowly, uses hand gestures, and maintains her patience. But sometimes the messages don’t get through. “Does anyone speak English?” she asks, more than once, and someone else comes forward to translate.
By 10:30, the room will be all but empty, and over 80 people will have gotten boxes and bags of food.
Ron gets to take an extra bag — a third one — because he has extra mouths to feed. “I have a family of eight,” he says.
Eight people to feed, and Ron gets a frozen chicken, juice, noodles, and ten cans of food?
“It’s hard,” he says. “It’s rough.” Ron collects a monthly disability check, but beyond that, it’s a lot of “shopping at 99 cent stores.”
Ron suffers from heart disease. He’s been coming to Linda Vista’s Food Distribution Drive for over three years. “I had a second heart repair last month,” he says. “And I’m doing okay. But financially, it’s just hard. So I’m here with my mom,” and at this, Ron smiles toward a friendly looking woman standing nearby. “She’s disabled also,” he says. “We both come here once a month.”
The Emergency Food Assistance Program is for people who are in need of emergency food. There’s an income guideline, but generally speaking, if you’re in need of emergency food, you will not be turned away. As Olivas puts it, “Who knows if someone was a millionaire the day before, but they gambled everything away, and now they need emergency food?” The Target bags go to these people.
The Commodities Supplemental Food Program is more strict. It’s for people over 60 or people who have children under 6. The boxes and cheese go to these people.
The Food Bank does Food Distribution Drives, like this one in Linda Vista, 25 to 30 times per week, all year long, all over the county.
Another woman, JoAnne, arrived at the rec center early this morning, about 7:30. But she’s still here at 9:30, waiting in line. “I didn’t have my paperwork done,” she says, although her spirits still seem bright. She’s almost at the front of the line. “This is only my third time coming here,” she says. “I was a nurse. And I had a horrible back injury. So now I’m 68 and disabled, and I qualify to come here and get some food for myself. It’s helpful. Very, very helpful. And especially at the end of the month. The money’s gone by this time of the month, so it’s very handy.”
Jenny has been coming to Linda Vista for over seven months now. She gets food for her five kids, her husband, and herself. “My husband’s active-duty Navy,” she says. “But they don’t pay a lot. So that’s why we come to get the Food Bank’s stuff.” Jenny says the products she picks up today will last her “maybe three to five days. But you have to know how to make it stretch.”
If the United States Is the Land of Plenty…
Then how come so many Americans go hungry?
An ex–History Teacher Teaches a Short History of Hunger
Jim Jackson lingers over his sentences, choosing words carefully. He looks kind but also stern, compassionate but also kind of tough. It might strike one as the perfect demeanor for the leader of a charitable organization.
“Let me tell you what I understand, and what I’ve learned, about food in America,” Jackson begins. “About 30 years ago, the food bank movement got started, and through the early- and mid-’90s, there was a lot of support by government for farmers. So one of the things the government started to do with surplus crops was turn around and give them to food banks who could distribute them to needy people. It was one of the techniques our society developed to support the farmers and deal with the problem of hunger.
“Then in the mid- to late ’90s, all that surplus food went away. And what’s happened over the past ten years or so is very interesting. Right now, the food market is very tight. And part of it is because we’re putting corn into our gas tanks. And other kinds of surpluses have disappeared. So now when the government wants to find a surplus for distribution to the poor, they need to go out on the open market and buy the food.”
Jackson describes himself as always having had “a social conscience,” adding, “I grew up in the ’60s.” He also says that he takes his religion “very seriously.” And he obviously takes the problem of hunger seriously.
“Another thing that’s happened is that food manufacturers have become terribly efficient,” he says. “They’ve really cut down on errors during food processing. For instance, putting the wrong label on something. That kind of product used to come to the Food Bank. But it’s not really happening very much anymore. And now the supermarkets, which used to be a great source for food banks, are also much more efficient in their warehousing, and they also have these reclamation centers that take products with wrong labels, for instance, and they try to correct the problems and get these products ready for sale.
“And then, there are some new retailers that have entered the scene, like Big Lots, and all the 99-cent stores. You go in there, and they’ve got the oddest assortment of things. But they get their stuff from the same places where we used to get ours.
“Now, there’s still enough food to go around. There’s still enough. And the problem is still distribution. But the marketplace has changed, so that every food bank is going through the same problem of having to figure out how to reinvent itself. And it’s not just a problem of having to get something out there, it’s a problem of getting something nutritious out there. Because there’s this growing awareness that we need to be providing not just any calorie for consumption, but good calories.”
To this end, the Food Bank has made a push to purchase healthier food from the government: low-sodium canned goods, more produce, and more protein.
But then Jackson gets down to the nitty-gritty.
“I have to tell you how big this problem is,” he says. His voice intensifies with emotion, and he looks almost physically ill as he lists some startling statistics. “Half of the low-income unemployed in our county are food insecure. Half of the low-income families with a single parent are food insecure. Two-thirds of the low-income pregnant moms are food insecure. An unbelievable statistic. And there is something else about which, frankly, I’m appalled, about San Diego. Only 27 percent of those eligible for food stamps actually have them. Only 27 percent. That is a scandal of enormous proportions in our county. We are the lowest in the state. And apparently it has to do with the long application process and the huge amount of confusing paperwork. We want to do something about that, as an agency, but we’re not sure what, yet. We’re going to try to use technology and our current network of agencies to make it easier for people.”
And what can the rest of us do to help?
“The best thing people can do is just give us money,” Jackson says, matter-of-factly. “Go on our website. There’s something fun there, too. It’s called the Virtual Food Drive.”
On the Food Bank website, it’s possible to visit a virtual pantry and drag and drop food into a basket and pay for it with a credit card.
“The way I figure it,” Jackson says, “we could use close to 40 million pounds of food in this county a year. Then we’d probably be getting close to meeting our needs. But we’re probably only at about 11 or 12 million pounds.”
The bottom line is this:
“In San Diego County,” says Jackson, and his voice takes on a tone of ever deeper concern, “there are about 270,000 people who are hungry. Tonight. And there are 110,000 kids who are hungry, tonight. And during the year, more people are going to be affected by hunger than were evacuated from our fires.”
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act
On October 1, 1996, President Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to promote donations to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. In essence, this law was designed to make it easier for people to give. The bill was named for Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Missouri), who fought for the proposal but died before it was passed.
The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects donors from liability when they’re donating to nonprofit organizations.
It states that a person or gleaner or nonprofit organization “shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product…
received as a donation in good faith from a person or gleaner for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.”
The Act goes on to state that donors are only culpable if injury or death results from an obvious “act or omission.”
In short, no one who donates food in good faith can be sued.
It Says It’s Expired, but It’s Still Good
“You can buy something in a grocery store that has today’s expiration date on it, but it’ll be good for months,” Jackson asserts. And he produces the paperwork to prove it. “It’s approved by the Department of Agriculture.”
Some interesting highlights: unopened cereal is good for 6–12 months after the expiration date. Unopened chocolate is good for up to two years after expiration. Most condiments, unopened, are good for up to a year.
The important stipulation stated by the Department of Agriculture is this: “Proper packaging and storage are essential for maintaining the quality of stored products. Foods must be stored in sealed containers, stored at the proper temperature, and protected from moisture, pests and other sources of contamination.”
A Lean Operation and a Very Large Issue
“The San Diego Food Bank basically imploded a year ago, in October 2006,” Jim Jackson says. “There’s been some major changes since then. We’re a brand-new, independent organization now. Before that, there was bickering and fighting between Neighborhood House Association and America’s Second Harvest over how to run the Food Bank. There was even some lawbreaking, and people are going to jail, for stealing food from the poor. Eventually, all those troubles led to the whole board of directors of the Food Bank resigning. When that happened, we had $16,000 in the bank and a pile of canned food. That’s it. And now we’re trying to rebuild from the ground up. We have extraordinarily dedicated people on our board, and we have a tremendously great staff who have stuck with it. We used to have 35 employees, and now we’re doing the same amount of business as before with only 21 people. And we move enough food out of here every day to provide 22,000 meals. So it’s a very efficient organization. But we’re not out of the woods yet. We have 30 years of experience in this town, and we’ve built up this network of 269 agencies that depend on us, but we need help to survive.”
The Food Bank has not missed a single distribution since it went independent in July of 2007. Over that period, they’ve carried out nearly 600 food drives like the one at Linda Vista Recreation Center.
“We’re meeting the need that’s intended by the government programs,” Jackson says, “but we’re also trying to get our own existence solidified and our feet on the ground. And it depends entirely — entirely — on the generosity of San Diegans and their response to our call to help people who are hungry.”
Even Saints Go Shopping
Lupe Haley tosses products on a flat red cart, walking backwards among the boxes of foodstuffs. It’s Wednesday morning in the marketplace of the Food Bank. Haley shops thoughtfully. She buys only what she knows the homeless people in Saratoga Park will want and what she knows how to cook.
“What’s this?” she asks, rhetorically, holding up a box of something marked Scooby-Doo. “Oh, no! It’s blue. No blue food!”
Haley fills cart after cart and wheels them one by one to the flat metal floor scale where the warehouse clerks, Arturo Valdivia and John Bode, weigh the goods and help Haley load them into her husband’s blue truck.
Her whole shopping trip takes her about an hour and a half.
Next Monday morning, she’ll start cooking, and she’ll cook for the better part of the day, until she takes the food over to Saratoga Park yet again.
Haley usually shops in sneakers and casual clothes, but today she’s wearing her most dapper outfit: a blue blazer and blue skirt and a nice print scarf. She has a blue beret perched atop her red hair, and her low-heeled shoes (which match her scarf perfectly) clatter over the concrete of the Food Bank floor. She’s overdressed for shopping because Channel 10 News did a little feature on her this morning.
She laughs. “Eighteen years I’ve been doing this, and nothing. And now today I get Channel 10 and the San Diego Reader.”
Haley begins her life story the same way she begins her sermons. “Eighteen years ago, I was homeless myself,” she says. “And I noticed there was no church and no person and no brother and no sister and no relative who helps you when you come to be homeless in this country. In my country, in Mexico, you can make your own cardboard houses. No problem. Over here, you can’t. You can’t camp nowhere. I have two tickets in my life. One for having a dog with no leash, and one for sleeping in the streets. Now, you can sleep from nine to nine without a ticket. But before, you’d get a ticket. And I got a ticket for $300.”
She goes on, “So I was homeless for three months. I told my kids we were going to go camping. I had three kids and my dog and my cat. My husband lost his job, and when you don’t come up with the rent, you know, the eviction notice comes really fast. And my whole family was homeless for three months.”
Haley’s family spent their days at the beach, swimming and playing in the sand. “It was in the summertime,” she says, “and there was beautiful sun in Ocean Beach. In other words, no rain, and the stars were beautiful. And in the nighttime, we’d go to sleep in Raphael Park in Ocean Beach. My husband Robert and I would wake up and go for walks and collect cans, and we would make, like, $15 or $20 or $10 or whatever God blessed us with. And we would use that for food. And then we’d go to the park and cook our food, and then we’d eat it.”
It wasn’t long, though, before her kids wanted to go home. Little Alma Ruth was five, and her sons Angel and Roman were six and nine, respectively. “They said they didn’t want to be camping no more,” Haley says. “They wanted to go home. And I started crying, because we didn’t have any place to go. I didn’t have no family. And it was really hard for me.”
Her eyes tear up even now when she remembers.
“And then I asked God,” Haley says, and her voice takes on a deep edge of sincerity. “I wanted to help the homeless. I said, ‘God, I will help You and feed the homeless, and You give me a home.’ And from there, I started getting child support from my first husband. And then Robert got a little part-time job. And then I started working in a hotel, cleaning the rooms. And everything came together. From there we went to live with people, and then we went to live in a hotel, and then we rented a studio, and then a one-bedroom house. And now I’m living in a beautiful home, a four-bedroom house. I pay $1200 in rent.”
True to her word, now Haley helps the homeless. “I cook for them, I pray for them, and I tell them where they can go to get some shelter and some meals,” she says. “Because God answered my prayers, I am able to do that.”
Every Monday in the same neighborhood where her family “camped” almost 1000 Mondays ago.
“I’ve never missed a day,” she says. “Because, you know why? This is how I feel, and this is how I see things.” Her eyes and tone are earnest.
“Myself, I’m diabetic,” she says. “So today, when I got up, I had to have my oatmeal. Okay? At 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock, a sandwich or some scrambled eggs or whatever. Something. Now think about all these people. And the cold weather. Or the hot weather when they burn all up. And then maybe someone helps them, but they get macaroni and cheese in a box, and where are they going to cook? So I know in my heart, if I can feed two or three people, then I’m happy. But I help sometimes as many as a hundred people every Monday. And I pray a lot. I pray that I’ll get enough blessings to help even more people.”
Haley says it’s worth it to her “just for all the hugs I get.” And then she says, “I’ve never met some of these people before, and they hug me and bless me. They’re strangers, but to me, I call them brothers and sisters, and they’re going through such tribulation. Imagine if you were homeless all of a sudden and going through what they’re going through. You’d lose your mind. Your mind wouldn’t function right. That’s what happens to these people in the streets.”
Before Haley was homeless herself, she worked for 15 years in printing shops. She also taught exercise classes through Jack LaLanne.
Today, her daughter works, and Haley babysits her granddaughter for $100 a week. She also collects cans on Wednesdays and makes about $40. And her other money comes from preaching at her church: $75 weekly. Her husband Robert is disabled and collects Social Security.
“It’s really hard still, sometimes, because I won’t have any transportation and then I’ll have to make arrangements,” she says. “I do have people who help me, my neighbors help me.”
Today, Haley will spend $51.60 at the Food Bank. But this is a light day. She estimates that she spends closer to $100 every week on food for her Monday meals.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” she says. “Right now, I owe the Food Bank over $250. When my husband’s Social Security check comes on the first, I’ll make a special check for the Food Bank. I do this every month, usually. And the Food Bank is great. They support me so much.”
Homeless people who stay near Haley’s church will help her unload the thousands of pounds of food and water. “Look at my hands,” she says. Her fingers are twisted and arthritic. “How much longer do you think I can do this?”
Haley turns philosophical. “I know why I went homeless,” she says. “Because that was the only way I could become strong in my own will. And that’s how I have the conviction to do what I do today.”
And then Haley states the issue in the sharpest relief possible. “Let’s get real,” she says. “Food is life. If you don’t eat, you die.”