The great Grocery Bag Giveaway is a huge event in more ways than one. It is one of the most anticipated events of GLIDE’s holiday programming: hosted each year by GLIDE Co-Founders Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani and attended by thousands of community members, many of whom line up before dawn on streets closed to car traffic for several blocks around in expectation of receiving a free grocery bag containing all the fixings for a Holiday banquet for four. It is also a mighty logistical challenge, involving months of planning and fundraising and, on the day of the event, the pre-dawn mobilizing of most of GLIDE’s staff along with literally hundreds of community volunteers (including a ready-to-roll posse from key supporter GAP, Inc.). Finally, given the spirit of celebration that is always a key ingredient of the proceedings, the day carries an outsized impact on the holiday season for many participants (including volunteers) who might otherwise find these days hard emotionally and/or materially. Thanks to an amazing citywide team effort, GLIDE’s Grocery Bag Giveaway is huge in scale, and huge in heart.
On the occasion of Grocery Bag Giveaway—which this year took place on December 14 and included deliveries to partnering community-based organizations around the city—Senior Director of Programs Kyriell Noon talks to us about the intentions behind this GLIDE tradition as well as San Francisco’s changing landscape of food insecurity.
When did Grocery Bag Giveaway (GBG) first begin?
It started some time in the mid-80s, but not even Janice knows exactly which year. We think it happened spontaneously and continued to build and get bigger and more organized every year.
How many bags were distributed this year?
This year we distributed 2,500 bags here [outside 330 Ellis Street] and 1,500 bags at three off-site locations in other neighborhoods like Bayview and Chinatown. We partnered with other local nonprofits, including Community Living Campaign (CLC) in Bayview and OMI and Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), who have their own distribution systems. We didn’t want to assume that we knew where the need was in someone else’s community. Many of the seniors served by these local nonprofits are not very ambulatory. There’s no way they can come and get a bag for themselves, so we decided to take the bags to them at CCDC and at the CLC locations. We just wanted to share what we had with them and let them distribute to where they saw the need.
How has GBG evolved over the years?
We’ve changed it quite a bit. In years past, the contents of the bag more closely resembled a traditional American holiday dinner with a turkey and potatoes and the kinds of things you’d make in mainstream American culture for the holidays. We had our Strategy, Research & Evaluation (SRE) team do a survey two years ago and we discovered that 88% of the people who were coming were Chinese-speaking, female and over 60. Some of them were leaving contents of the bag on the streets because the food wasn’t relevant to their cuisine. We decided this year to change the contents of the bag so that they were relevant to the culture of the people taking them. This year, one of the bags included a chicken, Sriracha sauce, rice, soy sauce and Chinese sausage.
The other thing we did differently this year was that we offered a choice between two bags. We had learned through the SRE surveys that a significant number of people coming to GBG did not have access to a kitchen—so giving them a chicken or a turkey didn’t make any sense. We decided to offer a second choice specifically tailored to those without a [full] kitchen. The protein was a frozen meal from PF Chang’s, donated by our own board member Paul Fleming, and a canned ham.* The rest of the contents were similar to the first bag.
It’s kind of a big difference: offering someone a choice as opposed to handing people a bag. All the changes we made were based on asking our participants questions, and modifying what we were doing in response to their answers. I think every year it’s going to get more refined as we get better at meeting the needs that our clients describe.
How does GBG relate to food insecurity?
I think originally, when GBG first began, there were folks who were not able to provide their families with a special holiday meal. So we were able to provide that meal. We didn’t want them to feel left out of the national celebration. And over time that spirit has continued. But I think it’s also become an increasingly relevant and powerful event as food insecurity in the Tenderloin has increased. We are starting to think of GBG and our Meals Program as ongoing efforts to combat food insecurity in this very costly city. These two programs, as well as some other programs we hope to roll out in the coming year, are all part of GLIDE’s efforts to combat food insecurity.
Who is affected by food insecurity?
Food insecurity is real for a lot of people. Many of these people don’t necessarily fit any profile of what we might think a hungry person looks like. I recall a presentation from Shireen McSpadden—a GLIDE board member and Deputy Director of the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services—which provided information about what was happening with seniors in San Francisco, and it was really scary. Something like 60% of seniors are low-income. A lot of them are food insecure, and when they do eat, eat by themselves. So there’s social isolation around food insecurity. One of the takeaways from her presentation was that we at GLIDE must offer a situation where people not only get a decent meal but also have an opportunity to socialize. There’s all this data about how social isolation leads to poor health outcomes. People make poor choices or don’t see their doctors as often when they’re alone as opposed to when they’re engaged in some kind of network of community. If we can be the place where seniors come at least once a day to eat and hang out and talk to each other for a little while, we will have gone some ways toward addressing some of those concerns.
We also see a lot of folks who are working minimum-wage jobs, trying to hold on to housing in the city and not having money for food. We’re seeing people in our [Daily Free Meals program] line who are on their breaks from work and saving themselves a couple of bucks here so they can continue to pay medical and housing expenses.
Food insecurity affects children. There are a great deal of children in the city and particularly in this neighborhood who might be housed but aren’t always sure where their next meal is coming from. Folks who are on public assistance get their check the first and second weeks of the month, but that check only stretches so far. By the time they get to the third or fourth weeks of the month, they might not have enough money for food.
Has there been criticism of GBG?
We’ve gotten critique about GBG. What people sometimes have seen is folks getting a bag and then getting back in line for another. There’s commentary about, “Why doesn’t GLIDE manage that process in such a way that people don’t abuse the generosity?”
But as Reverend Cecil said to us last year, “We’re here to distribute groceries, not to be the grocery bag police.” That’s really it. Everyone has their own assessment of what their need is. It’s not for you or me or GLIDE to question their determination of what they need. If they need something that we’re offering, we’re going to give it to them. People determine their own need. This is what’s powerful about Grocery Bag Giveaway.
*GLIDE is deeply grateful to all of our GBG sponsors this year. Funding is sponsored by Gap Inc, while food is provided by Foster Farms, SF Speciality, ConAgra Foods and SF/Marin Food Bank.
Kyriell Noon is the Senior Director of Programs at GLIDE. Has served for 16 years in the SF non-profit sector at Juma Ventures, Youth and Family Enrichment Services, STOP AIDS Project, and San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Originally from New York City, Kyriell was educated at Vassar College and Harvard University.