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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

As tech workers stay home, food banks scramble for volunteers

‘We have IT staff making sandwiches and executive assistants passing out meals’


SF Examiner

The day Mayor London Breed announced City Hall employees would be working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic was the day Cody Jang, head community engagement manager at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, knew his job was about to change.

Three thousand volunteers cancelled their shifts in a single day. Even the volunteers they could get to sign up needed to work in smaller groups. And tech companies, previously a consistent source of large groups of volunteers, were nowhere to be found.

“Nobody wanted to be liable for sending in their employees to volunteer,” Jang explained.

Before the pandemic, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank would plan volunteer shifts three-to-five months in advance. Food packing shifts ran at the nonprofit’s two main warehouses seven days a week, with between 30 and 80 volunteers coming in per shift. Each day there would be between two and four shifts. They provided groceries for approximately 34,000 families per week.

Today, there are only seven to 10 people volunteering for each warehouse shift. And yet, because of increased need, Jang says they need to serve 16,000 extra families, totaling more than 50,000 families per week.

That increase tracks with data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Its food scarcity pulse survey found 6.4% of households in the San Francisco metropolitan area did not have enough to eat between Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, compared with 5.7% in December 2018. But with the rise of remote work, many tech companies aren’t sending their workers to volunteer at food banks anymore. To fill the corporate volunteer gap, food banks are reworking their operations, putting their employees on the assembly line, and begging for individual volunteers to pull some extra weight.

According to research by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, 51% of San Francisco jobs are “remote eligible.” As previously reported in The Examiner, about 20% of S.F. tech job listings in September were for remote work — more than any other sector in The City. Even companies that will eventually call San Francisco employees to return to the office won’t be reopening immediately. Salesforce and Uber, for example, are waiting until January for a full reopening, while Airbnb is putting it off until as late as September.

In years past, food banks depended on some of those very companies for volunteers. Salesforce employees, for example, get seven paid days of volunteer time off each year, and volunteered more than 20,000 hours at the SF-Marin Food Bank between 2016 and 2018 alone.

Zendesk has a notable and well-reported relationship with Tenderloin social services nonprofit Glide Memorial Church, supporting them with financial donations and tech worker-volunteers that package food, safe-injection kits or provide workforce development and IT services. Food banks interviewed by The Examiner said Twitter, Airbnb, Doordash and Amazon were also actively recruiting volunteers pre-pandemic.

There are many reasons tech companies volunteered so much with food distribution in particular. For one, sending troves of employees to get involved in solving hunger and homelessness certainly helped counter the narrative that tech companies are responsible for the region’s inequality. But many of The City’s tech companies are also located downtown in either the Financial District or SOMA, close to many food banks and nonprofits that specialize in getting meals to the area’s homeless.

Food banks also have made it easy for them to volunteer. Entire teams can work on the same assembly line in a San Francisco-Marin Food Bank warehouse, for example, and shifts are available every day. Glide Community Safety and Training Manager Lillian Mark says she works directly with companies to craft a custom volunteer “experience” for their employees based on a team’s interests and skills. Julia Sills, director of volunteer services at St. Anthony’s, similarly works with companies to find shifts that work well with everyone’s schedules.

In the meantime, food banks are restructuring how they operate. Meals that were once served in large dining rooms at Glide, for example, are distributed to-go, requiring significantly less personnel. The other most common tactics are simplifying food prep — ham sandwiches instead of chili, for example — and closing down common spaces that required more upkeep and cleaning.

But the biggest shift comes in employee responsibilities. Administrators that once coordinated services are getting their hands dirty and doing the services themselves, often working overtime and forsaking long-term planning for more immediate needs. “We have IT staff making sandwiches and executive assistants passing out meals,” said Mark.

Foster Farms frozen turkeys donated for holiday meal kits sit on a table at the SF-Marin Food Bank. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The need is escalating this holiday season. The S.F.- Marin Food Bank, Glide, and St. Anthony’s all have specialized holiday programming for which they need extra hands. The days after a major holiday, like Black Friday or Dec. 26, and the months of January and February are always short-staffed, even in non-pandemic times. “We’re really worried about early 2022,” said Jang.

But while some in The City fear whether tech companies will ever return to the “meat space,” food banks are hesitant to make any permanent changes. The main solution they’re yearning for is the return of more volunteers, coming back on their own accord.

“I don’t feel like we are in damage control mode because I am optimistic,” says Sills. “Regardless of what work looks like in the future, whether you’re working from home, hybrid or not, being connected to the community you live in is important and fulfilling and something these workers will want to do.”

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