Koret Food Program: Serving diverse communities more than food

Koret Food Program: Serving diverse communities more than food

Oct 2017 | Special Projects

The Koret Food Program, one of the Foundation’s longest-standing initiatives, was special to our founder, Joseph Koret, because of this personal experience as a child in New York City. Mr. Koret grew up in a family that today would be classified as “working poor.” Later in life, he enjoyed telling the story of fishing for dinner in Central Park, landing a fish, and quickly hiding it down his shirt when a police officer approached. He also enjoyed being in a financial position to help alleviate the hunger of others.

Since 1981, the Koret Food Program has provided more than $11 million in grants to 24 Bay Area nonprofit organizations. The program continues to evolve in-step with our grantees, as they adapt to their clients’ changing lifestyles and priorities. In 2015 we awarded multi-year support for the first time, allowing grantees to have the flexibility needed in economically stressed times. In the fall of 2019, we awarded $1.94 million over two years in new grants.

The Bay Area is an expensive place to live, and increasing numbers of people find themselves hard-pressed to make ends meet. The wealth gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen, particularly in Silicon Valley. The combination of (1) increased need, especially for the working poor, (2) decreased public funding, and (3) increased anxiety in immigrant communities over the consequences of using any services that require registration, has the potential to create a perfect safety-net storm. The statistics are sobering.

Providing well-being as well as nutrition

Our food program grantees offer a wide and innovative range of services to meet the needs of the whole person, physically and emotionally. Providing food is these organizations’ shared primary purpose, but each continues to expand its services and delivery modes to respond with dignity and respect to the changing needs of their clients. Companionship and community, for those who seek it, are also a vital part of what these grantees offer.

The three grantees showcased below consider education a key part of their services. This can take many forms, including free programs, workshops, individual counseling, and access to computer resources. Topics range from nutrition and general health, to shopping and cooking on a tight budget, to substance-use disorders and treatment options, to public services available through other providers. The popular notion of offering people a hand up rather than a handout is one that Joseph Koret strongly believed in—and one that Koret Food Program grantees embody.

St. Anthony Foundation

St. Anthony’s is a pillar of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. It is a community within a community. Since October 4, 1950, the dining room has served a free hot, nourishing meal to every guest who has shown up. It is open every day: no cost, no questions, no pressure. These days, the dining room serves nearly 800,000 meals a year—without a penny of government funding. St. Anthony’s is supported by donations from individuals, and scores of civic-minded Bay Area companies and foundations. And every year, about 15,000 dedicated volunteers help serve meals, distribute clothing, and lift the spirits of St. Anthony’s guests.

The mission of St. Anthony’s has not changed since the nonprofit was founded by Franciscan Friar Father Alfred Boeddeker to “feed, heal, clothe, and lift the spirits of those in need.” Feeding the hungry is what St. Anthony’s is best known for in the broader community, but guests also rely on the organization’s extensive supportive services.

St. Anthony’s medical clinic provides a broad range of care and behavioral therapy during 14,000 visits a year. About 30 percent of patients are children whose families live in the Tenderloin and surrounding neighborhoods. St. Anthony’s also maintains the largest free clothing program in San Francisco, stocking everything from children’s clothes, to interview or employment apparel, to warm winter coats. As for lifting spirits, St. Anthony’s motto sums up the organization’s commitment: Hope served daily. From the year-long job training program, to the technology lab, to a residential addiction recovery program, to a social work center, St. Anthony’s offers its guests comprehensive, compassionate support.

The dining room has seen an increase in the number of guests who are homeless and have responded by providing “emergency clothing” services so that guests with hygiene issues can feel comfortable using the dining room. They have also begun hosting social activities in the dining room after meals, so guests who are otherwise isolated can engage with their community.

Over the next year, St. Anthony’s Dining Room will serve 770,000 hot meals, and provide hundreds of guests with fresh produce and canned goods via a farmers market and food pantry. Regardless of how guests are served, or where they’re coming from, they know they can come to St. Anthony’s to be treated with dignity and respect.

Tri-Regional Jewish Community Food Program

This program is managed by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, in partnership with JFCS of the East Bay and JFS Silicon Valley. As the only Jewish social services agencies serving the entire Bay Area, they are also the only Koret Food Program grantees focused on alleviating food insecurity specifically for the Jewish community.

It may not be widely known that more than 30 percent of Jewish households in the Bay Area are low-income to extremely low-income, according to the 2019 California Housing and Urban Development Poverty Guidelines. Many of those served by JFCS and its partners are elderly with limited mobility options, and so in addition to food pantries, JFCS offers grocery and meal delivery by volunteers.

Unique to the Jewish community, JFCS also offers Kosher meal options and special meals for the Jewish holidays. Like Koret’s other food-scarcity grantees, the Jewish Community Food Program offers a variety of services providing more than food, including companionship and support. Traci Dobronravova, director of JFCS’s Seniors at Home program, confirms, “For many of the seniors we serve, and clients with chronic illnesses that keep them at home, their food deliveries may be their only regular contact with the Jewish community. When our volunteers make their deliveries, they are also planning to stay for a visit.” And JFCS looks for “volunteer-client matches,” to make these visits more meaningful.

These personal interactions and touch points are critical, as food insecurity frequently signals a need for other services. Dobronravova points out, “If someone needs food, we try to figure out why, to see if there is anything else JFCS can do to help. All the services we provide are part of a holistic strategy. Our social workers can connect seniors to other community services, and to government benefits they may not realize they are eligible for. Our social workers can recommend job-training programs and help people locate affordable housing. The food program is definitely about more than food.”

For the next generation of volunteers, the food program is also about more than providing food. Young professionals have the opportunity to connect with people they might not otherwise meet: Holocaust survivors, Russian émigrés, and others who have come to the Bay Area from elsewhere. Volunteers who speak a bit of Russian or Hebrew or Yiddish make deliveries to native-speaking clients and have a chance to practice. The exchange of stories is as nourishing as … chicken soup.

Second Harvest of Silicon Valley

The term “food bank” cannot convey the magnitude or scope of this operation. Second Harvest of Silicon Valley provides food to 310 partner non-profits, including pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters, expanding their reach to 1,000 sites. The organization maintains three warehouses and a fleet of 21 trucks. Speedy distribution is key, because half of the food Second Harvest provides is fresh produce. Over the past decade, the organization has seen an almost 50 percent increase in the average number of people served per month. And the need continues to grow.

On average, one in 10 people living in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties receive food from the Second Harvest network, but it’s estimated that one in four people is at risk of hunger. Even though the organization serves over a quarter of a million people each month, there is still a gap of those in need who aren’t accessing services. And the face of hunger is a lot more familiar than people think – because of the high cost of living in Silicon Valley, more residents than ever before are being forced to make choices between food, rent, medicine, school supplies, and other essentials.

An increasing numbers of college students, many of them out on their own for the first time, are also vulnerable. Because of the growing need among this population, Second Harvest has worked with 14 local colleges (two-year and four-year; private and public) to implement on-site pantries that provide pantry staples as well as fresh produce, protein and dairy products. Providing students steady access to food helps relieve stress and worry and allows students to focus on their studies.

Second Harvest continues to find new ways to maximize efficiency and impact. The transportation department rents smaller trucks and hires drivers to deliver food to smaller-volume distribution locations. Second Harvest also invests in improving partners’ infrastructures, from gates that make deliveries easier to coolers that allow storage of produce and dairy products. Outreach programs include nutrition classes, cooking demonstrations, and food tastings.

Second Harvest is one of the first food programs in California to launch “food pharmacies.” These locations make available food (and counseling) with particular benefits in combating diet-fueled health disparities exacerbated by lack of access to healthy food—from lean protein and complex carbohydrates to reduced-sodium or low-sugar canned goods. Cat Cvengros, Vice President of Development and Marketing Cvengros enthuses, “For example, by partnering with Samaritan House in Redwood City, we can provide food in the same building where people receive medical care. Being able to offer seamless access is exciting.”

Every week, volunteers in JFCS’s Young Professional Community Connection bake challahs for home delivery the next afternoon.