Passion Project

Space Crunch at the Food Bank

By Allison Landa

Paul Ash has led the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank since 1989 following years working in the private sector, including a stint in agricultural development abroad. He’s grown the Food Bank significantly through the years — a move that’s led to his drive to expand its reach. (Fox Nakai)

San Francisco’s generosity has proved to be both a blessing and a challenge for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. The facility, which has been located at 900 Pennsylvania Avenue in Dogpatch for the past 25 years, doesn’t have enough room to house the overflow of donations.

“We ran out of space,” says Paul Ash, the Food Bank’s executive director. “The building was designed to handle 30 million pounds of food to be distributed every year — and we’re up to 48 million. We’ve exceeded the capacityof the building.”

The Food Bank, founded in 1987, feeds an estimated 140,000 people weekly. It can now only serve half of those in need due to the constraints of its current facilities. Once the approximately 30,000-square-foot expansion is complete, it will notch up from 48 million pounds distributed annually to 75 million pounds, and from 140,000 people served per week to 200,000. It will help, too, to be able to fill 15 to 18 trucks with supplies, as opposed to a dozen.

According to Ash, the Food Bank once entertained plans to relocate in order to find more appropriate warehouse space for its needs. But following nearly five years of combing an unreasonably heated property market, the best solution was to remain on the property that was given to them by Pacific Gas & Electric in 1995.

“The San Francisco real estate market is very difficult, and we’re a large organization,”Ash says. “We need a lot of space. After literally years of searching with real estate professionals and developers and our own board, we decided there was not an affordable place to relocate and have started making plans to build out on the space we already own.”

Specifically, that expansion will extend the facility out into what is now its north parking lot, adding two loading docks on the north end of the building to focus on inbound food. The south docks will then be used primarily for the distribution of food to those in need. The FoodBank’s board of directors stamped its approval at the end of 2018, and this year has been dedicated to reaching out to neighbors and key stakeholders in the hope that the buildout will go as seamlessly as possible.

The initial application was filed this spring with SF’s Planning Department. The Food Bank was then set to hold a public meeting to discuss its plans with the community and gather input; meanwhile, the project awaits the City’s review.

The Food Bank is working with the inter-national architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whose previous San Francisco projects include India Basin, a major effort that oversaw the redevelopment of overgrown former industrial lands bordering the San Francisco Bay into an active waterfront area. City approvals are expected to be secured later this year, with construction kicking off in 2020 and completion slated for 2021.

Ash says that changing times have transformed how the space will be used. “When we built this building, food banks pretty much dealt in packaged and canned foods. We’ve turned that model on its head and now two-thirds of what we deal with is fresh produce, fruits and vegetables. We’ll have a cool space to store them, which has previously been a big problem.”

There were as many as 60 million people missing meals in San Francisco and Marin. Since that time, additional food distributions have brought that number down to 35 million — a much-welcome drop in community need. However, the need still continues to persist and won’t go away anytime soon.

“That is still a huge number,” Ash says. “The encouraging thing is that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Ash has been with the Food Bank since 1989. His family background lies in farming and he studied agricultural economics in college, where he became more aware of the critical need to allay hunger.

“Knowing that families and individuals were going hungry at the same time we were producing [food] that went to waste left me incredulous,” says Ash, who lives in Oakland with his family. “As we provide more, better and fresher food, I see the looks on people’s faces when they choose fresh fruits and vegetables to take home in a dignified farmers market style. Knowing that people have the opportunity to cook good food in their own homes is all the encouragement I need.”

Get Involved

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank still has ongoing needs. Primary among these are volunteer assistance and the resources to distribute food. If you wish to volunteer and/or donate, visit sfmfoodbank.org to learn more. And those interested in making a significant financial contribution may contact Vice President of Development Judith Frankel at [email protected] or by phone at (415) 282-1907, ext. 309.

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