Chinatown, San Francisco is one of the city’s oldest and most well-known neighborhoods, but as the pandemic bore down on the city, its residents, and the businesses they worked for were in dire straits.
“Out of 150 restaurants in the area, only 40 remained open,” explains Malcolm Yeung, director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “This meant restaurant workers were unemployed and were left to feed themselves in the communal kitchens of the single-room occupancy (SRO) housing in which they lived where both kitchens and bathrooms are shared. This was dangerous, of course, in the COVID-19 pandemic where close quarters bred infection.”
In addition, many of the local grocery stores had closed and those living in the community were put in the precarious and unstable position of trying to feed themselves and their families.
Maintaining physical distance in SROs is always challenging,” Yeung says. “We realized we could reduce the usage of these kitchens through take-out programs. Plus, this approach helped support local businesses.”
The Chinatown CDC (Neighborworks network organization) decided to combine the needs of the still-operating 40 restaurants with the nutrition needs of the community by funding a to-go meals program that provided restaurant meals to those in communal living spaces. This solution not only kept the restaurants afloat and fed the community, but it also helped to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Between April-June 2020, when the program ended, they provided more than 25,000 meals.
Some older residents and those with disabilities qualify for other community meal delivery programs, Yeung says, but many residents did not qualify. While these individuals were helped by the city’s food pantries, Yeung emphasizes that preparation of groceries in the communal kitchens is exactly what Chinatown CDC wanted residents to avoid.
“NeighborWorks was one of the first organizations to reach out with funding and support,” says Yeung. “Their efforts helped the Chinatown CDC believe that we could step up and be successful in our tremendous undertaking of feeding our community.”
NeighborWorks contributed $20,000 to this effort.
“The program and the fallout from the pandemic made us realize that protecting and preserving our community means supporting neighborhood grocery stores and restaurants,” explains Yeung. “Neighborhoods like ours are important to immigrants and cannot survive without these gateway assets. We need to fully concentrate on protecting these small businesses and monitor the gentrification of the area.”