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Farming Hope Believes Every San Franciscan Should Have Access to an Elevated Dining Experience

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two Farming Hope apprentices work by chopping vegetables in the Reffetorio San Francisco kitchen
Farming Hope apprentices chop fruit and vegetables at the Reffetorio food hub in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In the age of social media, the food industry can sometimes feel like a popularity contest. Who delivers the most Instagrammable dishes? What exotic ingredients can be touted? Where can the most outrageous decor and cocktail menus be found? And I agree, food should be fun. There isn’t any shame in mindfully enjoying the Bay Area’s abundance of flavors.

But food is also a baseline necessity, and accessibility to healthy, joyful food shouldn’t be an exclusive thing—but often it is. As one of the nation’s leading per-capita regions for homelessness and income inequality, there is a warped sense of food in San Francisco. I’ve seen people eat out of trash cans in front of high-end restaurants and walked past people begging for meals while others take home leftovers provided by their generous employers. Though the experience of straddling those two extremes isn’t unique to the Bay Area, it’s more sharply edged around here.

This complex issue goes beyond any individual’s actions, of course, and the simple truth is this: All folks—regardless of age, background or life choices—deserve the benefits of our region’s wonderful culinary experiences. 

When Farming Hope was established by Stanford FEED Design School Incubator graduates Kevin Madrigal and Jamie Stark in 2016, this kind of equity in the food ecosystem is the tenet they chose to build upon. 

two men stand beside each other as founders of Farming Hope
Co-founders of Farming Hope Jamie Stark (left) and Kevin Madrigal pose for a portrait at Reffetorio. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As a “garden-to-table” job training nonprofit, Farming Hope provides paid work opportunities to apprentices who might otherwise struggle to find stable, supportive employment in the food industry. Since it was founded in 2016, the organization has established various locations in San Francisco where it works with marginalized community members.

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Based on three six-week training cycles at rotating venues—Manny’s in the Mission, Refettorio in Civic Center and a community garden in Western Addition—the program passes down diverse skills, experiences and, most importantly, the love and knowledge of good, sustainable food to houseless, transitioning and formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Our model was thinking about a modern soup kitchen,” says co-founder Madrigal, who currently serves as an advisor for Farming Hope. “It’s about actually being in community with each other, not just waiting to shove food down people’s throats then asking them to leave.” 

Over the span of six years, Farming Hope has been working to increase its services and adapt to the changing needs of those they serve. It’s something they’ve been able to sustain thanks to their tireless commitment to building community partnerships while providing regular event programming. An example of that is their weekly “in-house dinner.”

“It provides families a space to connect and share resources,” says Andie Sobrepeña, the program’s operations director. “We have food-insecure families who are invited. There is an area for kids, for parents, and we have volunteers and staff helping out. We do a three-course plated dinner and have volunteers serving the families restaurant style. It’s a really beautiful space. It’s less of a transactional experience of giving food and leaving. It’s a safe space intentionally built for families with a common ground to connect on. It’s meant to be a holistic experience, to break down barriers of who has access to nice dining experiences. We should all be comfortable in those spaces.”

A San Francisco native who grew up working for her family’s independently owned business, Foundation Cafe, Sobrepeña is deeply committed to the nonprofit’s mission. Along with Kerry Rodgers, Sobrepeña is set to begin her tenure as Farming Hope’s co-executive director this August by launching a number of new programs to help apprentices navigate a COVID-impacted food industry.

One of those new initiatives is Feel Good Coffee, a coffee pop-up at Manny’s on Thursdays and Fridays—a program Sobrepeña says will allow apprentices to accumulate more hours by adding a morning shift that previously didn’t exist. It’ll also give them a chance to learn about pastry making and coffee culture, including specialty latte preparation. 

Farming Hope is also rolling out a new guest chef dinner program, which will feature influential chefs working directly with apprentices to serve food insecure families and the general public. The first dinner was in June, featuring Good Good Culture Club chefs Brett Shaw and Kevin Keovanpheng and general manager Aimee Arcilla. The three  restaurant industry veterans volunteered their time, collaborating with Farming Hope apprentices to create a menu that included halibut sashimi, green curry beef and calamansi chiffon cake. Former Top Chef contestant Tu David Phu is slated to be the next guest on August 8.

Working with a panoply of eclectic chefs exposes apprentices to a wide set of beliefs and viewpoints in the kitchen, apart from Farming Hope’s own lessons.

“The cool thing is that not everyone comes into our program wanting to be a chef, but no one regrets learning how to cook better,” Sobrepeña says. “It gives tools to learn how to eat healthier and support their personal values. There’s value in the garden-to-table process and understanding food systems, sustainability and cooking philosophies from different chefs. That all gets carried forward.”

In addition, Farming Hope is in the process of formalizing an externship with Good Good Culture Club, where trainees can continue learning about service and cooking techniques in a real-world restaurant setting.

corn is being roasted on a stovetop by an apprentice in the kitchen of Reffetorio
Maria Burgos roasts corn at Reffetorio. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It’s a reminder that the local food industry can provide much more than just a night out or good eats—it’s an active network of support and sustenance. Farming Hope embodies that by providing a livelihood and pathway forward for those who never thought they’d be creating a plate of crying tiger shrimp with coconut-makrut cream and crispy butter beans.

“Food is such a connector and a baseline need for everyone that it breaks down barriers in ways that not every job training program can,” says Sobrepeña, “It helps that our team enters this with open eyes and hearts; we’re all ready for the challenges of this work.”

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You can visit Farming Hope at one of their two San Francisco locations: Manny’s (3092 16th St.) or Refettorio (149 Fell St.). Check their Instagram for additional information on upcoming guest chefs and more.

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