Emanu-El Food Pantry Feeting the poor

On a gritty stretch of sidewalk along Geary Boulevard, the line starts forming well before dawn.

At first glance, the assembled crowd looks like fans queued up for tickets to a rock concert.

But after spotting the wire pushcarts and the time-worn faces, it's clear there's another force that brought out dozens of people — nearby Reform synagogue.

The pantry's inventory depends upon stock on hand at the San Francisco Food Bank and the availability of surplus USDA items. This week's offerings include a package of frozen chicken, a dozen eggs, a pound of angel hair pasta, canned tomatoes, a box of cereal, broccoli, a small bag of red potatoes and some fresh fruit. There are a couple of oddball items as well: a container of olive spread and a snack pack of vanilla pudding.

"Whatever they give me, I take it. If I don't need it, I don't take it," says Reid, a retired home aide who has brought along a portable stool so she doesn't have to stand all morning.

Though it only swung into business last February, the synagogue's storefront operation has quickly became a mainstay. After just three weeks, it was serving 100 needy seniors and families in this seemingly middle-class Richmond District neighborhood. And when the numbers kept growing, the capacity was recently capped at 200.

"It is pretty unbelievable," observes Rabbi Sydney Mintz as she scans the winding line behind movie theater-style stanchions that extends nearly half a block to the corner of Second Avenue.

"If we had enough volunteers and food for 500 people, 500 people would be here."

Each Sunday, a crew of about 15 volunteers hands out roughly three tons of food to clients, many of whom are elderly Asian or Russian immigrants with limited English-speaking skills.

The free program at 3821 Geary Blvd. is one of 35 neighborhood pantries operated throughout San Francisco and the only one in the city run by a synagogue.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, many synagogues and Jewish agencies are also addressing the hunger in their midst by sponsoring food drives, cooking free meals, handing out groceries and food vouchers on an emergency basis, and volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Some area synagogues have also housed and fed the homeless in rotation with neighborhood churches. And S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services operates four pantries for clients who need emergency food and supplies.

Emanu-El, with an anticipated pantry budget of some $80,000 to $100,000 this year, buys surplus food for just 18 cents a pound from the food bank. Some of that food could come from the synagogue's own garden at Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma. To date, 4,200 pounds of vegetables have been harvested and delivered to the food bank from that one-acre plot.

The pantry's door opens at 10 a.m. and in just under an hour, groceries are distributed to some 173 clients this past Sunday. Colleen Prince, a congregant who chairs the pantry's executive committee, welcomes each person in line.

"Good morning, how are you?" Prince asks an older woman wearing a babushka-like scarf. The food is stacked on shelves on both sides of a narrow space that once housed a beauty salon.

Volunteers stand at designated stations around the room, greeting clients and placing cans and packages of food into paper sacks and satchels.

"We just have gotten to know all these people," says Prince, relating how one client stopped by a few months ago to say he'd just landed a construction job and wouldn't need the pantry's services anymore. The man, who had been out of work for about a year, told the pantry volunteers, "I'm going to miss you guys," Prince recalls.

Along with many regular clients, the line includes some people who have just used the pantry once or twice in the past.

"It's going to hold me over for the next week," says one 53-year-old woman who was standing well back in the line and was uneasy about the fact that she held ticket No. 136.

"I'm very low on food and I'm out of cash," adds the woman, who is Jewish. She was starting a new sales job the next day and didn't want to be identified by name. "I don't want them to know I'm so broke." she explains.

Up near the head of the line, Yuk King Lee, who arrived at 4:30 a.m., dispenses shoulder massages to fellow clients standing ahead and behind her. "This is free because of friend," she says with a smile in accented English. "No charge."

For the most part, those in line wait patiently for the 10 a.m. opening. But one woman approaches Mintz for some help in negotiating her way back into the queue. The woman explains that she left her spot toward the end of the line to go to the bathroom. When she returned, a man behind her refused to let her in.

According to pantry volunteers, such disputes are rare.

"There's really a fine line between frenzy and control," says Mintz, who leads volunteers in a prayer before the pantry opens. "We manage to navigate that very well."

Periodically, volunteers come outside bearing trays of donated Noah's bagels that are eagerly snatched up by the group outside.

Normally, there's plenty of food for the first 200 people, but on this day, the delivery is a bit smaller than usual and the pantry unexpectedly runs out of chicken, pasta and some other items by the 11 a.m. closing time.

Though uncomfortable with the idea that clients line up so early, Mintz says it's been difficult to assure them that everyone will be served.

"When there's a desperation, such an intense need, there's nothing we can do to enforce getting here at 9 a.m."

To ensure that they're primarily serving their local community, pantry volunteers recently began checking clients' addresses for nearby 94118 and 94121 zip codes. "If we have food at the end, we're happy to serve you, but we have to serve our clients first," Prince says.

When asked if the pantry should screen its clients for proof of need, David Goldman, a pantry board member, responds: "Who is going to wait three or four hours for two bags of groceries unless they need it? We're not doing a background check on people."

Though it has become a weekly scenario, the long lines continue to touch those who help out.

"It humbles you," says Goldman, 39, an attorney. "You really get a sense of the need."

The operation has grown increasingly efficient and streamlined since it opened six months ago. Prince says the pantry's shoppers, for instance, have learned the likes and dislikes of their clients. Canned tuna was a bomb, for instance, while tofu was a hit.

"We kind of massage it every week," says Prince, noting that whenever possible, volunteer shoppers try to pick up the most nutritious food.

In May, it was clear that the original pantry was far too small for its volume of business. "We could only have three clients in at a time," says Prince, noting that the problem was remedied by knocking down a wall.

The pantry's 200 clients now can be served in about an hour.

Each week, a rotating team of about 50 synagogue volunteers buys, unloads and distributes the food.

First-time volunteer Erika Mielke was assigned to hand out small plastic bags of nectarines and grapefruit.

"When we drove up this morning, we never expected to see the line," says Mielke, a 31-year-old counselor at Berkeley's Maybeck High School.

She plans to return. Despite language barriers with many of her customers, Mielke says client after client responded to her offerings with a smile or a thank-you.

"It's nice to know you're making a difference in someone's family," she says.