SFUSD Moves Free Meal Service Out of Chinatown, Raising Community Fears

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Pre-prepared grab-and-go meals wait in bags for families at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in San Francisco's Chinatown. SFUSD is shifting this grab-and-go pick-up location from Chinatown to the Tenderloin neighborhood. (Courtesy Donny Aoieong)

At Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, on a hill just above Stockton Street in San Francisco's Chinatown, 1,000 meals are given out freely each week to impoverished families.

More than 6 million of these so-called grab-and-go meals have been served up hot by the San Francisco Unified School District during the pandemic at various sites citywide. And for many who have lost their jobs, the meals can mean the difference between feeding their kids, or not.

But starting Tuesday, April 20, the meals won't be served in Chinatown anymore. As schools reopen across the city this week and next, grab-and-go meals served at school sites across San Francisco will be shifted to new locations.

For Chinatown residents, the nearest available SFUSD-provided grab and go meals will shift to the Tenderloin neighborhood at 225 Eddy St. — a Muni bus ride away. Some families and groups that provide services to them say even this seemingly short extension of a journey is dangerous at a time when racist attacks against Asian communities are on the rise.

Jun Chang Tan is a custodian who lives with his family in a single room occupancy hotel in Chinatown. His wife lost her job at a salon during the pandemic, and he lost hours at his custodian job. They rely on the grab-and-go meals from Gordon J. Lau Elementary to feed their two children, a 15-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.

Tan said he fears having to go to the Tenderloin to pick up food because of recent attacks.

"When I was looking at the map — one of the locations is in the Tenderloin. That street is basically — I’ve seen it — it’s all homeless people," Tan told KQED in Cantonese. "So my worries include the impact on my health and sanitation. I’m also worried about getting attacked. This risk is greater. So I feel that it’s not desirable."

Tan described lines for meals at Gordon J. Lau Elementary stretching farther than a block every Tuesday and Thursday. The need in Chinatown, he said, is high. Others in Chinatown echoed Tan's concerns.

"I wouldn't feel safe lining up in the Tenderloin," said Donny Aoieong, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021's school district chapter. Aoieong was raised in Chinatown, where he still lives with his wife, Maria Yap, a school nutrition worker. He said he raised the issue with the school board last week.

People line up, often for a block or more, to pick up food for their children at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in San Francisco's Chinatown. (Courtesy of the Chinatown Community Development Center)

Free meals will continue to be served to students going to school in person at Gordon J. Lau Elementary, but many families are hesitant to return to in-person learning, SFUSD data shows. Out of the families 741 students, only 18% of respondents said they felt comfortable returning for in-person instruction in a December SFUSD survey. Aoieong said that number hasn't changed much, and that only about 60 families have said they'd return for in-person instruction at the school, a number SFUSD did not confirm in time for publication.

Families not returning for in-person instruction still need access to food. But they won't be getting it in Chinatown, at least not from SFUSD.

"Why transfer all these people to a different community when we could have them in our own community?" Aoieong asked.

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In an email chain obtained by KQED, SFUSD Commissioner Alison Collins – who recently drew public condemnation for tweets about the Asian community she wrote in 2016 – wrote to district staff calling the grab-and-go meals location shift concerning due to hate crimes against Asian families, who are "fearful of walking long distances to get food."

Orla O'Keefe, chief of policy and operations at SFUSD, wrote in response to Collins' email that district Student Nutrition Services staff have done an "incredible job" serving 6.1 million meals during the pandemic, and that their "number one priority right now" is a successful return to in-person learning.

While she recognizes the needs of the community, O'Keefe said her team is "at maximum bandwidth" and "near breaking point" working to launch meals in 80 schools across the city, while keeping 10 grab-and-go sites open, and coordinating some home food deliveries.

It's a difficult logistical feat, O'Keefe said, and the reopening has put a strain on the entire district.

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In a statement to KQED, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick wrote, "To ensure we have enough staff to support all schools offering in-person learning, Grab and Go sites at elementary schools are closing. Grab and Go will continue at ~ 10 locations across the City," adding that district nutrition staff "are deeply committed to providing as much access to meals as possible with the constraints of all available resources."

Dudnick said schools may be reevaluated to reopen on-site grab-and-go locations in the future.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin's office was also copied on the email thread and was working to coordinate restoring grab-and-go food access to the Chinatown community.

A food pantry run by the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank will also soon shift from Gordon J. Lau Elementary to Woh Hei Yuen Park in Chinatown. While access to the pantry will remain in Chinatown, easy access to the pre-prepared grab-and-go meals from SFUSD is especially important for SRO residents who fear using communal kitchens due to COVID risk.

Restoring that food access would mean much to Tan and his family, who live in an SRO hotel. Even keeping food in their home is difficult, because their refrigerator has to be small enough to fit in their single room, and it's so broken that the door frequently falls off of its hinges.

"My feeling is they’re saying, 'You don’t need it, and if you need it, you have to go elsewhere,' " Tan said. "But every single week, twice a week, the line is about one block long or longer — that’s how many people there are. So if there are so many people who want it, why they don’t support this location is something I really don’t understand."

KQED's Monica Lam contributed to this story.

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