The Food Pantry's Sara Miles on Serving the City's Hungry

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Sara Miles. Photo courtesy of Sara Miles.
Sara Miles. Photo courtesy of Sara Miles.

She's not your stereotypical Christian do-gooder: Former hardcore foreign correspondent Sara Miles, a self-described Jesus freak, also counts lesbian, activist leftist, author, and former atheist among her handles. Oh, and she's the mom of a 23-year-old too.

The Food Pantry Line.
The Food Pantry Line.

So just how does someone like Miles, 59, long suspicious of church-run charities, wind up having a religious transformation and founding The Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco? It all started with a bite of bread and sip of wine, almost 20 years ago now.

Today, this former line cook and current director of ministry at the church finds herself helping to feed up to 600 hungry people in the city every week. Over 1,400 people are registered at The Food Pantry and come alternate weeks to get groceries. And for the past dozen years Miles has pulled this feat off without any funding from the church or government agencies. (The non-profit food pantry, while housed inside the church, is not a church-run program.)

Instead, Miles runs the operation on the generous support of community members and through fund-raising events like the New Taste Marketplace, the most recent of which was held December 1 and raised around three thousand dollars. The event was hosted by occasional BAB contributor and SF Examiner restaurant critic Jesse Hirsch, who lined up some 30 edible vendors including food trucks, local food artisans selling take-home gift items, and on-site gourmet grub (this writer welcomed the arancini on a cold day).


Miles' efforts have spawned more than 18 other food pantries around the Bay Area. Every Friday the author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and Jesus Freak helps transform the church's main sanctuary into a sort of free pop-up farmers' market for the poor where this city's most needy pick up produce, pantry items, and other edibles. She welcomes everyone -- ex-cons, meth heads, former heroin addicts, the elderly and the infirm, pensioners, those with dubious immigration status, and others without homes, gay, straight, and transsexual. Unlike some other food programs, nobody has to prove they're poor either.

Volunteering at The Food Pantry.
Volunteering at The Food Pantry.

Many of these hungry souls serve as volunteers too. About nine tons of groceries, supplied by the San Francisco Food Bank and Food Runners, are handed out each week. Unlike some other programs, much of what goes home is fresh fruit and vegetables--not processed foods or canned goods--along with rice, beans, cereal, bread, and other items. Neighbors supplement food bank offerings with hyper-local donations of apples, figs, and lemons from backyard gardens.

Along the way, Miles, an avid cook, has encountered the powerful connection people make when they enjoy a meal together -- whether it's in the home she shares with her partner, at church with the 50 volunteers at The Food Pantry, or in unfamiliar territory in her former war reporter life when strangers took her and a group of guerrilla soldiers she traveled with in and shared their supper.

Miles believes everyone deserves to eat and the desire to nourish others is a universal phenomenon that transcends class, race, and economic status. She shared her food philosophy during this season of giving.

Are there skills from your journalism days that come in handy in your pantry work?
I love hearing people's stories and at The Food Pantry there are a million of them!

What are the biggest misconceptions about hunger in our community?
San Francisco is foodie heaven for people who have money. But rents are so crazily high in this city that if you're working at a low-wage job (or even two low-wage jobs) it's hard to earn enough to buy basic groceries, never mind wood-fired artisan pizza.

Who are your clients and your volunteers and where do they come from?
We give groceries to all kinds of people, from all over San Francisco: elderly and disabled people living on Social Security; parents with young kids; minimum-wage workers; immigrants from Latin America, Russia, and China; families who've lost their homes, runaway teens, the newly unemployed. These same people run The Food Pantry: almost all our volunteers are folks who came to get food, and stayed to help others.

How does the "new face" of hunger play out at The Food Pantry?
Over the last two years, we've had more people show up who've never been to a food pantry before, but are in trouble because they lost their jobs or have had their hours cut back.

What have you learned from your clientele and your volunteers?
That poor people are incredibly resourceful, smart, and generous. That everyone has something to give--and wants to give it.

101 year old Russian woman client at The Food Pantry.
101 year old Russian woman client at The Food Pantry.

Do you have any particularly memorable clients?
Last week we celebrated the birthday of a Russian woman who had just turned 101. She accepted a bunch of roses gracefully from our volunteers, and then carried some of her own groceries home!

Has anything in particular touched you during the dozen years you've fed people at the pantry?
It always means a lot when someone who's hungry and has come to get groceries brings food to share with others. Over the years we've been given homemade tamales, dumplings, cakes, lumpia, soup, carrot juice, pies, chili -- you name the food, people want to share it.

When people come to stock up on food, what are some go-to items everyone seeks?
Fresh fruit is a favorite: we usually have several varieties, thanks to the growers who supply us with oranges, grapes, mandarins, strawberries, pears, melons, apples and more. The Russians are very happy when we have yogurt. We always offer rice, beans, cereal, bread, and potatoes.

Why have people pick their own food?
Each week, there's something for everyone. We let people choose their own groceries: It's more dignified, and there's far less waste.

The Food Pantry.
The Food Pantry.

What's radical about running a food pantry?
Unlike some places, at The Food Pantry we don't ask you to prove anything to get groceries: you don't have to show us a picture ID, verify your income or your address, document how many kids you have, show us utility bills, prove you're a citizen, or otherwise jump through hoops. We don't think anyone should have to demonstrate they're "deserving" in order to eat.

Can you sum up your self-described preoccupation with food?
I worked in restaurants for years, as a line cook. I still cook a lot for people. I had a religious conversion, midlife, when I ate a piece of bread at my first communion.

How does your faith, activism, and need to feed the hungry intersect?
On the St. Gregory's altar there's an inscription from the 7th century bishop Isaac of Ninevah: "Did not our Lord dine with publicans and harlots? Therefore, make no distinction between worthy and unworthy: all must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve." After all, Christianity is a faith that connects God with human beings through eating. A few years ago, we were honored to have Bishop Desmond Tutu come visit The Food Pantry, and he told the volunteers, "Thank you, because when you feed the people, you're feeding God."

What's the idea behind the New Taste Marketplace and how did Jesse Hirsch's first event pan out?
We created New Taste as a way to connect people who are passionate about food with people who are hungry and to deepen everyone's understanding of the ways food can build community. Elianna Roffman [now Elianna Friedman] was NTM's fabulous founding market director, and when she stepped down Michael Davidson (the great GrilledCheez Guy) ran it for a while. We took a break, and then Jesse Hirsch organized the December NTM, which was a huge success. Jesse is just wonderful to work with: he's completely unflappable, and a genius at bringing together the most interesting foods and the most interesting people. We're discussing another market sometime in the spring.

What do you need most to continue with your outreach?
Working with the San Francisco Food Bank and Food Runners, we can provide fresh groceries for a family for about $1 a week, and we feed about 500 people a week. So financial gifts go a long way--fifty bucks will buy groceries for one family for a year.


All photos courtesy of The Food Pantry