Super Bowl: Feeding the homeless with leftovers from gala parties
The luncheon was held just south of downtown, with about 100 in attendance. Compared with other galas in this, the host city for Super Bowl 50, the affair was modest, low-key.
None of the celebrities serving as attractions to the corporate mega-parties showed up: No Joe Montana. No Iggy Azalea. No Jamie Foxx. The attire was decidedly Friday-casual. And the protocol was strictly seat yourself — typically in a tent pitched on a sidewalk.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” said a soft, halting voice from within one of a row of shelters lining 13th Street, beneath a thrumming onramp to the Bay Bridge. The tent flap unzipped. Two hands reached out and retrieved a boxed meal of chicken salad, quesadilla and a bottle of iced tea.
With that, volunteer Wayne Garcia and two helpers advanced with a loaded hand cart to the next tent.
“Free food here. Anybody hungry in there?” Garcia called out.
“Yes,” came the muted response.
Another flap unzipped, another set of hands emerged and two lunches disappeared inside the tent.
So it went for an hour, and so it has been going on all week.
In one of the more compelling confluences of Super Bowl excess and grinding human need, a volunteer organization called Food Runners has been scooping up leftovers from catered football events. The daily haul is redistributed to homeless shelters, as well as to the ad hoc tent cities that have popped up on the outskirts of the city before the big game.
“I think we have a responsibility to feed our fellow human beings,” said Mary Risley, a former culinary school operator who founded Food Runners nearly 40 years ago. “If we are able to do it with somebody else’s leftover food — great.”
A clash between San Francisco’s homeless population and Super Bowl visitors has been anticipated for months. Mayor Ed Lee warned, somewhat infamously, in August that any transients encamped near the site of a temporary “Super Bowl City” attraction were “going to have to leave the street.”
His declaration, though softened with expressions of support and compassion, nonetheless riled homeless advocates — who raised the specter of massive police sweeps in a campaign to sterilize downtown and the Embarcadero for the benefit of football fans and corporate sponsors.
With Super Bowls, however, reality in the end tends to overtake hyperbole.
The showdown between the city’s shuffling army of 3,000-plus street-bound homeless people and civic leaders determined to make the heart of the city pristine — if only for a week — came up a bit short.
There was a Thursday night protest at the Embarcadero, which did not last long, given a strong police presence. And not all those living on the streets have been routed from the blocks surrounding the Super Bowl City site. They could be seen this week, usually in ones or twos instead of the more typical larger congregations. That seemed to make the stragglers more visible.
But many had moved to the encampments beneath the Central Freeway. Some came to escape the rains that have fallen in the last few weeks, the freeway serving as their roof. Others said they had been “directed” to the tent cities — “herded like cattle” in one telling — by police and other city workers.
There has been much public discussion here about the migration, about issues related to public health and neighborhood safety and civic values, even about the wisdom of distributing free tents.
Sam Dodge, the mayor’s point person on homelessness, said officials have felt “a lot of heat” during the Super Bowl buildup, but added that it was not necessarily a negative.
“It is good we are able to shine some light on these issues,” he said.
For Risley, who helped round up the leftovers — and for the handful of health workers who distributed them among the tent dwellers Friday — policy discussions seemed a bit detached from what they had set out to do.
They have been collecting and distributing restaurant leftovers since long before the Super Bowl came to town. They will be doing so long after it’s over.
“People are hungry,” said Garcia, vice president of the nonprofit organization HealthRIGHT 360, a descendant of the Haight-Ashbury free clinics of the 1960s. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Although San Francisco is a foodie city in the extreme, the Super Bowl did seem to spice up the fare: honey mustard chicken thighs, beef tenderloin, dim sum; stuffed naan breads, red beans and rice. Those and many more dishes were loaded onto the hand carts and taken to the tents.
Risley said she would be rounding up party leftovers until 1:30 a.m. Saturday.
Almost universally, the recipients expressed gratitude, although few left their tents. They were asked no questions, and in turn they asked none. Except once.
“Anybody hungry in there?” Garcia called out as he did at every stop.
This time a young man stepped from the tent.
“Do you have anything vegan?” he asked. “Or at least vegetarian.”
He was given a salad, sans the butter chicken, and the cart rolled on.
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 6, 1:38 p.m.: In an earlier version of this article, a photo caption incorrectly identified Wayne Garcia and Mary Walker as volunteers with Food Runners. They are staff members with HealthRIGHT 360.
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