More than Food: TWB Volunteers Offer Tasty Recipes and a Sympathetic Ear

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Every Friday, Tito Elias, shops for 120 or more families. At the large San Francisco Food Bank warehouse, he stretches his shopping credit by carefully selecting rice, beans, cauliflower, onions, broccoli, cereal, carrots, apples, oranges, and protein bars. As a volunteer of The Women’s Building Immigrant Food Assistance Program, Tito, along with 11 other volunteers, then distributes this food every Monday morning to the long line of waiting immigrant residents of the Mission District.

Growing up in Nayarit, Mexico with 8 siblings in a single-parent household, Tito says “I used to go shopping with my mom for the whole family. For years I watched how much food was needed for each portion, so now when I go [to the Food Bank] I can figure it out.”

Frances Ruiz, Program Coordinator of the Food Pantry, says that the number of immigrant families coming for food has risen in recent months, fluctuating from 120 to 180 people. With the economic recession, high unemployment, and city and state budget cuts, TWB’s Food Pantry has felt the effects. On the one hand, Tito has only enough shopping credit for 85 families, and on the other hand, 50% more families are coming for food. To increase awareness and raise more funds, The Women’s Building has started holding Bake Sales.

In this diverse and “foodie” city, poor immigrant families have a hard time feeding themselves. It is hard to receive the few benefits for which they qualify because of language barriers, complexity of the food stamp application, and bureaucratic red tape. TWB’s Food Pantry was started in May 2008 to provide immigrants with nutritious foods that would allow them to cook wholesome meals, maintain their independence, and develop a healthy quality of life.

Besides the Food Pantry, TWB also wants to promote the larger issue of food justice, with the idea that in this rich country, poor people should also have access to healthy, sustainable and safe food. The Women’s Building is therefore taking steps to partner with local food justice organizations to provide Mission District immigrant residents with locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as, providing courses on how to prepare healthy meals. In addition, volunteers like Tito Elias attend trainings on nutrition so as to be able to encourage healthy eating habits and recipes to clients.

Tito says, “Sometimes when we get food like turnips, a lot of people don’t know how to cook them. They say, ‘I don’t know these.’ It looks like a potato and they don’t know how to eat them. I know how to cook turnips because I used to watch my mom cook for my brothers and sisters and I. So I tell people you just cook it with a little olive oil, sauté it, salt and pepper, put a little ginger and that’s how you eat them and they go ‘Oh, OK,’ and they take them.”

In addition to distributing food to clients and giving helpful recipes, Tito also provides another kind of nutrient. “We try to give them not just the food but we also make them feel in love, you know what I mean? Because you don’t know what they’re going through. They’re worried. They’re not working, how are they gonna pay their rent and feed their kids? To me it’s very important that when they come, we help them feel welcomed and loved. And sometimes some of the clients, they come frustrated or stressed out and they’ll come in angry and I’ll go ‘OK, are you OK? You’re here, we have food.’ We talk to them, make them feel good for the moments that they’re here.”

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