Reflections on Eating Healthy in College- Karlo Cordova, SF State Health Ed Student and Leah's Pantry Intern


Leah's Pantry Staff: Karlo, thank you so much for your time, energy, and singing skills! We've enjoyed working with you over the past few months. Good luck and please stay in touch!

With the last couple weeks of my undergrad coming to an end, I’m happy to have spent my time at Leah’s Pantry for my 12 week internship. Leah’s Pantry was my number one choice because of their desire to inspire healthy habits in individuals and build resilience with the use of healthy food, which is something I wanted to learn more about. Monica, Alex, Danielle, Anna, and Joe welcomed me with open arms and guided me on the whole process of how Leah’s Pantry benefits the community here and I’m happy to have been apart of it.

As someone who has taken their health and fitness more seriously within the past couple years, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to cooking and how to fully take care of my body. When I starting lifting a couple years back, I never consistently ate healthy or stuck to a meal plan. I made a lot of progress just solely based on going to the gym 4 to 5 times a week and a part of me thought I could just keep doing that. Within this first year, I was able to lose 30 lbs while not really making drastic changes to my diet, but I knew I would eventually hit a wall and have to focus on the nutrition aspect just as much. I’ve always had problems eating healthy because a lot of the food in Filipino culture that I’m constantly surrounded by are more often than not, very unhealthy. This includes a lot of fried foods and heavy oil use, while adding a lot of white rice to the mix. I’m grateful that my parents provide meals for me, so I always end up eating it, even if it may not be the healthiest of meals.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco of Fall 2016, where I actually started to buy my own groceries and meal prep for myself. I never really cooked much at all until I was forced to, which was when I moved. I’ve been able to cook very simple meals, such as chicken, rice, and broccoli, which is a typical meal of some bodybuilders that I was following. This meal, along with ground turkey and other vegetables instantly became staples in my diet due to how easy and fast it was. While cooking these meals wasn’t very difficult, it was a good start for me because it was something easy I could follow.

As a college student, I feel like we’re always on the go, which is why simple and minimal ingredients are what work best for me. We spend hours of our time in class, studying for class, or working, so we don’t always enjoy having to spend hours in the kitchen as well. Students also crave social interaction, which may pressure us to eat and/or drink with our friends. Due to living with 5 other roommates in a three bedroom apartment, kitchen space and fridge space become a challenge for me. I feel like if I had the luxury of more room within my kitchen, then I’d be looking at other recipes as well. The only equipment I really use everyday is a pan on a stovetop and a rice cooker. I’ve managed to meal prep like this for most of my time spent in San Francisco, but I would love to expand my horizons on cooking more of the recipes that I’ve read through on 

I just want to thank Monica, Alex, Danielle, Anna, and Joe for all the support they have given me, making me feel apart of the family that is Leah’s Pantry. I appreciate all of them for my stay here even if it was for a couple months. My time spent here went by so fast and I wish I could stay longer and help out more with the ‘Feeding Potrero’ program, which was my favorite part of this internship. I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned within the past three months and applying it in my future endeavors!

Our First NPP Gold-Certified Pantry: CRC


By Adrienne Markworth, Executive Director of Leah's Pantry

One of most fun aspects of the merge with SuperFood Drive for me was to dive into the Nutrition Pantry Program.  The Nutrition Pantry Program’s purpose is to support client-centered and health-focused food distributions through technical assistance, training, and certification.  The immediate opportunity for NPP in San Diego is the connection with the Food Recovery Working Group of the San Diego Food Systems Alliance (we are members and also serve as the fiscal sponsor of this initiative).  They had received funding to increase refrigeration capacity of several food pantries and had issued an RFP to find happy homes for these wonderful commercial refrigerators donated by a private donor.  Barbara Hamilton, who directs this initiative, and I decided to offer NPP as an additional incentive to the grantees.

Yanira Frias at Community Resource Center of Encinitas was immediately responsive and enthusiastic about participation.  NPP already had a relationship with CRC, but it was ready for a reboot and this was the perfect time.  Bethany, Barbara and I toured CRC and administered the Healthy Food Pantry Assessment Tool. What an inspiring distribution (we’ve added some photos); I knew right away this site was going to be a bright spot in our network!  Thoughtful work, a committed volunteer crew, and dedicated transportation combined to create a 5-day-a-week pantry that prioritizes client choice, variety, and accessibility.

Over the next few months, Yanira and I developed a comprehensive work plan to add activities throughout the six NPP focus areas.  Her team participated in training, tweaked the layout of their shop floor, ramped up the work of their volunteer RD, and worked with us to develop new resources.  The last piece was to pull it all together into an updated volunteer training. We used this opportunity to do the formal presentation of their gold certification, which really cemented the importance of volunteers in their system!  

At the volunteer training event, I enjoyed hearing a few stories shared by the volunteers about their work at CRC.  It was touching to hear how this community cares for each other, and how committed everyone is to their work. We are so proud to have CRC be San Diego’s first Gold Certified Pantry!

Q & A with Ruthi & Adrienne about SuperFood Drive and Leah's Pantry Merge

Adrienne founded Leah’s Pantry in 2006. Ruthi founded SuperFood Drive in 2009. In 2017, we merged our organizations into one.

Q: What inspired the merge between Leah’s Pantry and SuperFood Drive?


(Ruthi): The merge between SuperFood Drive and Leah's Pantry was a very thoughtful and intentional process. Our organizations have been working in close partnership for 6 years so we already knew our complementary programs meshed well. SuperFood Drive's work has been to spearhead a movement towards healthy hunger relief. We focused on changing the narrative of what it means to nourish people in need and challenging hunger relief organizations to look closely at the nutritional quality of the foods provided to low-income vulnerable people.

(Adrienne)  Leah's Pantry also focuses on nourishment for vulnerable, food insecure populations, but our programmatic focus has been curriculum development, training and education.  We saw a merge with SuperFood Drive as a way to deepen our impact in the food pantry setting, where the types of foods offered really drive what other interventions are possible.  We liked the idea of being able to provide a more comprehensive intervention in this crucial setting.

Q: Tell us about your partnership. Were you already working together? Did you already share a similar mission and vision?

(Ruthi): Although Adrienne and I discussed the possibility of merging in the past, 2017 was the perfect time.  Prior to the merge, we’d collaborated on curriculum development and training programs, which helped us get acquainted with one another’s work.  On a personal level, we have built a strong foundation of trust and friendship. Adrienne and I support each other as working mothers and non-profit leaders. Strong women must be held strongly. We’ve got each other’s backs to strive for great impact while making sure to always focus on self care and family priorities.

(Adrienne): When I first moved to San Diego in 2011, Ruthi and I were introduced by someone who had worked for Leah’s Pantry in 2007.  That introduction launched not only a personal and professional friendship, but also a pathway for the expansion of Leah’s Pantry into the San Diego community.  Ruthi has always approached her work with graciousness, integrity and passion.  She is very inspiring and easy to work with, so I am grateful we have the opportunity to partner in such an intimate way.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand, what do you hope can be accomplished through your work?  OR Why are you excited about the merge?

(Ruthi): Our vision is that all people are nourished with basic access to healthy food and supportive resources. Expanding upon healthy food access and basic nutrition education, we focus heavily on trauma-informed nutrition education and nutrition security in underrepresented communities.  Over the past decade, we've learned that a major cause of unhealthy eating and lack of access to healthy food is trauma. Abuse, neglect, addiction, violence and chronic poverty create a cycle that’s often difficult to escape. These can be difficult topics to discuss. But they are very real parts of the lives of the humans we work with every day.  This short video created by Leah’s Pantry does a great job explaining our trauma-informed programming.  

Q: What happens to SuperFood Drive the non-profit?

(Ruthi): SuperFood Drive is now part of Leah’s Pantry!  We no longer exist as a standalone corporation.

Q: Where does the name "Leah's Pantry" come from?

(Adrienne):  Leah is my oldest child, now 14.  When she was young, I was overwhelmed with the task of learning to feed a baby and toddler.  I was curious how vulnerable populations navigated this aspect of parenting.  After doing some asking around, I discovered there was a need in the San Francisco community to work with families emerging from homelessness.  We started Leah’s Pantry to honor the challenge of parenting.  It’s grown so much, but our values have stayed true.  

(Ruthi): I love that our work shares a name with a strong and compassionate young woman.

(Adrienne):  We won’t let her brothers read this interview.  They might have a different version of their sister!

For any questions regarding our merge, please reach out! We’d love to hear from you!


Meet Anna, our new RD!

LP Staff: We are THRILLED to have Anna as part of our team! In her blog post below, she shares what brought her to Leah's Pantry and what she'll be doing as part of our team. You can learn more about her on our staff page here


Words cannot describe how excited I am to be part of the amazing (and growing) team at Leah’s Pantry as their new registered dietitian! Since I began studying food and nutrition at the University of California, Davis, it has been my ultimate dream to work for an organization like this. My involvement in various community service projects and nutrition education programs in Yolo and San Francisco county and boroughs of New York City has sparked my interest in serving those in need and creating a positive, sustainable impact on vulnerable populations, from the homeless and hungry to the chronically ill and isolated. From working with diverse groups who face challenges to meet their basic needs of living (e.g. food insecurity and poor nutrition), I see a great need to take action and aspire to not only improve the health of communities I serve but also to inspire and empower individuals with the resources and knowledge they need to live well and thrive.  

Part of my role with Leah’s Pantry will be to promote EatFresh and respond to nutrition-related questions posted to “Ask a Dietitian.” I will also work closely with the Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS) to teach Food Smarts Workshops to local food programs and congregate meal sites for seniors. Moreover, I will be providing individualized nutrition counseling for seniors who may be at risk for disease and future medical conditions. My hope is to enable positive behavior changes to improve their health and quality of life.

With an eye towards the future, I am motivated to improve and expand our services and programs at Leah’s Pantry to places where they are needed most and am ready to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I strongly believe a simple act of kindness can have a life-changing effect on an individual and feel so blessed to be part of an organization that brings so many people together to serve that same purpose.


Imperfect's Perfect Impact at Feeding Potrero

Each week for the past year, Leah’s Pantry has received 6-8 boxes of fresh produce from Imperfect Produce. We have used the produce for our cooking and nutrition workshops and distributed it to eager clients in public housing, a women’s rehabilitation residence, SROs (Single Room Occupancy Hotels), and senior centers. Our Feeding Potrero program has been most impacted by this generous donation.

Since August 2014, Leah’s Pantry has trained and hired residents of Potrero Annex and Terraces, a public housing community, to be part of the Feeding Potrero catering team. Most residents are very low-income and the community itself is not close to a grocery store. These challenges make access to healthy food and fresh produce very difficult for most. The catering team prepares 40 meals per week for two nights of family bonding activities. The meals model good nutrition and increase the families’ exposure and access to healthy, body and brain-building foods in a positive and supportive environment. At least three types of vegetables and fruit are served each night. Many community members have reported that trying the wholesome, plant-based meals that are carefully and deliciously prepared, has increased their family’s preferences for healthy foods like kale, green salad, broccoli, and cabbage. Some children have declared that they love salad! (An Imperfect miracle!) The catering team also reports that handling and learning how to cook a variety of produce has significantly increased their willingness to eat more healthfully. Furthermore, the residents excitedly take home a wide variety of produce to prepare at home after they have tasted how good it can be.

Being able to link families to a regular supply of fresh produce has gone a long way to reinforcing the healthy habits they have been exposed to at the community dinners. Thanks a million for your generous and impactful donation!

Q & A with Monica Bhagwan about Leah's Pantry's Trauma-Informed Work


Leah’s Pantry is so excited to share more about our trauma-informed approach to nutrition programs. Since this concept is newer to the world of public health nutrition, we wanted to do a Q&A with Monica Bhagwan, the brains behind this movement within Leah’s Pantry.

Q: Monica, since this is new territory within the world of public health nutrition, can you share what trauma-informed nutrition programming means to you?

It means that beyond thinking about WHAT we are providing, we are critically considering HOW we provide education, tools, and resources. Most of the people targeted by public health nutrition interventions have experienced trauma or a significant degree of toxic stress that creates both practical and emotional barriers to health and good nutrition. Providing nutrition information, teaching cooking skills, and improving food access, while well-intentioned, is not enough. If these interventions are to be effective, they have to be client-centered and include mental and emotional wellness within the concept of health. Providers have to address the following questions:

  • “What are the emotional experiences of our clients when they participate in our programs?
  • “How do stressful and traumatic experiences shape our clients’ relationship to food, nutrition, and self-care?”  
  • “In what ways do our policies and practices create a positive experience that levels power differences? Reduce shame, anxiety, and tension? Ensure feelings of safety, connection, and dignity?

This also means that providers must look at how stress and trauma affect their staff’s capacity to provide services.

Q: Why do you think a trauma-informed approach to nutrition programs is important?

Trauma, characterized as an experience where one’s feelings of safety and power are overwhelmed, can have long-lasting implications for people’s health and wellbeing.

Trauma also deeply affects people’s relationship to food and decision-making. Often times, nutrition programs and interventions overlook those things or end up re-triggering the feelings of powerlessness making them ineffective, or worse. However, what is also exciting and even more important, is that food and nutrition programs are an excellent opportunity to address trauma and bring people into holistic health. The research says that enhancing people’s skills for self care and deepening their connection to themselves and their community builds resilience to and recovery from trauma. Throughout human history, food has played this central role in care-taking and connection. Public health nutrition approaches that incorporate this deeper meaning of food can better meet people on a more fundamental level.

Q: What caused you to make the connection between trauma and eating behaviors? What were you seeing the the community to make the lightbulb go off?

My interest in drawing a connection between trauma, toxic stress, and eating behaviors began when I led a garden-to-table afterschool program for youth living in public housing in Hunters Point. The children had a hard time staying engaged, self-regulating, and managing emotional triggers. It was hard to get them to focus even on fun activities like cooking. Their emotional reactivity was very high and no wonder, they were dealing with too many levels of trauma. I also saw how many coped with stress and hurt by overeating, hiding food, and binging on junk food. I decided that it was necessary to prioritize emotional safety and connection while also engaging the kids in cooking healthy dishes in my program.

But it wasn’t until I began working at Leah’s Pantry where I found the support and opportunity to explore how to create and run nutrition programs that incorporated an understanding of trauma. I was immediately struck by how Food Smarts was such a participant-responsive curriculum and how Leah’s Pantry actively sought to innovate and evolve. I believe this is why we were invited by Bridge Housing and the Healthy Generations Project to run what became the Feeding Potrero program in Potrero Hill public housing. I was very excited to be able to conduct a nutrition program explicitly within the context of  trauma-informed community building. This project has been an excellent proving ground for taking a new approach to food and nutrition interventions. Leah’s Pantry supports the meal preparation and nutrition programming as part of an intervention where good nutrition is part of a 5 part strategy to addresses toxic stress for children and families. Over the past 3 years, we have seen not only how people’s behaviors and attitudes toward healthy food has changed, but that these changes are more meaningful when they are done in a trauma-informed approach.

Q: What’s one goal you have for Leah’s Pantry’s trauma-informed work over the next year?

Leah’s Pantry wants to collaborate with a site that would like to make trauma-informed nutrition or food programs part of its strategy to empower low-income communities to have healthier lives. We would love to either collaborate with them  to make current programming, such as a food pantry or nutrition class, more trauma-informed. Or we could work with them identify agency goals to address their clients food or nutrition needs and implement a program that uses food as a way to build skills, connection and resilience.  Doing this means really listening to and supporting both clients and staff as well as cultivating community voice and leadership. This is a process that takes time and strong relationship-building. This is not one size-fits-all approach. But we believe that if we broaden what it means to nourish we can meaningfully impact a community’s health.

Ode to a Rice Cooker

Guest blog post from Ellen Garcia, a Leah's Pantry facilitator, curriculum developer, and rice cooker extraordinaire!


I’d already had my own kitchen for several years when I bought my first rice cooker, the most inaccurately named of all cooking appliances. When I was younger and living in dorms and shared apartments, and therefore sharing a kitchen, I’d assumed that like the microwave bacon bowl the rice cooker was a single-use tool I had no space for. Even later when I could afford my own (tiny rented) place, the appliance still seemed extraneous. Only a suburb-dweller with an oversized kitchen could accommodate an object that cooks only rice, I thought. Or perhaps the owner of a sushi restaurant.

Then in 2013 I began volunteering for Leah’s Pantry workshops. I figured I was an accomplished enough home cook to offer wisdom to workshop participants, some of whom had either never cooked for themselves. And I believed in Leah’s Pantry’s mission of making home cooking accessible for anyone with a knife, a pot, and a source of heat. But I soon learned that although a good knife and a pot were often easy enough for participants to procure, a source of heat was not. Most of our workshops took place in after-school classrooms, senior housing, or residential hotels in San Francisco— places where the kitchen and therefore heat source was often in disrepair, or there simply wasn’t one.

So in the spirit of demonstrating ingenuity, Leah’s Pantry workshop facilitators improvised. This was the first time I witnessed a rice cooker being used for something other than rice. My mentor Vivian demonstrated how to make pumpkin oatmeal in the cooker instead of on the stove. She also demonstrated lentil stew. And polenta. And quinoa. Suddenly the rice cooker seemed a lot more useful. And I was learning as much as our “official” workshop participants. 

Eventually I had assisted with enough of Vivian’s classes that she suggested I could lead my own. I went out and bought a rice cooker at the small Chinese home goods store across from my apartment. This 6-cup cooker was the polar opposite of “smart” technology: it had no features whatsoever except a Cook/Warm button. One simply put the food in the cooker, pressed the button, and waited. The button popped up when a sufficient amount of steam had been released. The cooker cost about $30 and I named her Bertha. 

Over the next 3 years, Bertha and I fed literally hundreds of people in San Francisco. We demonstrated recipes in supportive housing, food pantries, public parks. I used Bertha in my rotation of portable appliances along with an electric skillet and crockpot, but she was the one people were most interested in. So inexpensive! So lightweight! So versatile and easy to clean! And perhaps most importantly for folks living in old wooden buildings, extremely safe; the rice cooker has no exposed heating element and shuts off automatically. Even sometimes when you don’t want it to. 

Meanwhile I learned that any dish that produces steam at medium heat can be prepared in a rice cooker, with delicious if not authentic results. Bean dishes, soups, and quick stews, like chili, work beautifully. Ditto steamed foods, like vegetables and fish, which can be placed in a basket above some water in the pot. Mac & Cheese is delicious though on the soft side. Smaller pieces of meat like chicken tenders caramelize nicely in the rice cooker. Pancakes and quick breads can be made by pouring all the batter into the pot at once, then popping out the finished result like a layer cake. The texture is more steamed than baked.

Of course, because the rice cooker is not as “smart” as the cook, it’s also a bit temperamental. The more water in the pot, the longer the cook cycle. It occasionally shuts off before the liquid inside is fully evaporated; Bertha always shut off 3 or 4 times while making pancakes and had to be switched back on, sometimes after cooling for a moment. Milk tends to scald on the bottom. 

In all, I discovered that the only “gourmet” quality item Bertha could produce was… rice. But no matter. With a little creativity, I could prepare a comforting tuna noodle casserole on a cold day. It may be extra saucy, but who cares? I cooked it on a folding chair in my closet! If you’re reading this and you are used to having your own well-appointed kitchen, this may sound bizarre. But if you live in a dorm room, an apartment with 6 people to one filthy kitchen, or small San Francisco studio, you just might get the appeal. 

Recently, after dropping Bertha one too many times on the sidewalk, she finally died. I replaced her with a similar model from the same woman at same mom and pop store where I’d bought Bertha. Perhaps recalling that I’d been there before, the woman asked if I eat a lot of rice. I explained how I use the cooker and she laughed. 

“Well you know then to let finished food warm in the pot for a few minutes before opening the lid. So it won’t stick to the bottom. Also, be careful cooking anything with sugar because it might burn.” Aha! Pearls of wisdom from someone who shared my hacker’s enthusiasm! 

Then she whispered with a smile, like sharing a secret, “Though my favorite is rice. It comes out perfect and goes with everything.”


  • Cooking times vary depending what’s in the pot. 
  • If you open the lid during cooking, the cycle will take a little longer.
  • Cookers with stainless steel pots costs more than nonstick, but they last longer.
  • Choose a rice cooker with detachable lid or lid insert. Then store leftovers by cooling them in the pot, covering with the lid/insert, and placing in your fridge.
  • Position the cooker on top of a cloth during cooking to absorb escaping liquid.
  • Beans and grains require extra cooking time when prepared with pre- salted ingredients like canned stock. 
  • The rice cooker is especially handy when weather is hot, since it doesn’t add much heat to a space the way a stove or oven can.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.


Building Community and Self-Efficacy at Sandford Hotel in San Diego

Guest post from Amanda Bejerano-Ligato, Leah's Pantry Nutrition Educator

In the early 80's, Harvard Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Langer, conducted a study with a group of senior men (70+) which became know as the Counterclockwise Study. Dr. Langer boarded the group in a hotel decorated as if the year were 1959.  During the five day period, the group was only allowed to speak about the 1950's era and the staff was instructed to treat them as if they were twenty years younger. At the end of the five days, the study participants were acting and in many ways feeling as if they were their younger selves.

I was mindful of the Counterclockwise Study when I began facilitating my Food Smarts workshop at Hotel Sandford where residents are low income seniors who live in small hotel rooms converted into apartments, known as a Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) room. None of the rooms have kitchens and most residents barely have enough space for their belongings. 

For the first few workshops, the participants did not know one another and only interacted with strained politeness. In hopes of opening up the group, I provided name tags and began to encourage camaraderie with group activities. It was a slow process. Most of the participants came to the workshop as a place to vent their personal issues revolving around their challenging lives.

When the workshops first began, I would prep the entire recipe at home. During the workshop, I alone would create the meal. This became overwhelming as the number of participants continued to grow. It was becoming impossible to do everything myself in the limited time available for my 1-hour class. The group had to chip in. So, I started by asking participants for help with small, easy tasks: open a can, add spices to my mixing bowl, or wash a vegetable. From the brief interactions I had witnessed during the activities, I felt comfortable encouraging them to take a step further. I tested the waters and slowly began to assign more complex tasks. 

No matter what the task, I acted as if the individual was capable of completing it. And no matter what the outcome, I encouraged and praised the participant for their contribution.

It was then that I noticed how much the members enjoyed taking part in the creation of their meal. From then on I assigned more responsibilities: using the microwave, chopping veggies, blending, mixing, and deciding what they wanted to add or remove from the recipe. Finally, they felt the freedom to create their own meal.

At our most recent workshop, I entered the cafeteria to find a perfectly set-up semi circle with sixteen chairs ready for the event. I was surprised by their forethought and thoughtfulness and yet it was a striking confirmation of how much they had grown. Several of the regular attendees had arrived early and were chatting as they waited for my arrival.

As I looked around the room, I thought to myself, "How did this happen? These couldn't possibly be the same folks I met over a year ago!" I smiled at the group, all of whom cheerfully greeted me and offered their assistance in setting up my station.

Yes, it has taken more than a year to get to the point where every single person is up and ready to wash their hands, pick up a cutting board, and dive into the recipe of the day. But I realized that what happened to these folks is what happened to the group in the Counterclockwise Study: simply by treating them like capable, contributing individuals who can fend for themselves, they began feeling and acting as such.

The Hotel Sandford SRO workshops have become more than a lesson in health and nutrition. The participants' growth and development has been obvious. Residents share healthy food ideas with one another and recreate workshop recipes for family and friends. Moreover, the bond created through the workshops has expanded their relationships with one another outside the classroom. They've become friends who enjoy each others' company.

Amber Fedosh, ElderHelp of San Diego Coordinator at Hotel Sandford, reflected:

"Leah's Pantry is one of the most anticipated monthly activities for the residents. Frequently I am asked 'when will Leah be back?' The instructor, Amanda, engages the residents and makes them eager to share their own tips and ideas for eating healthy and budget-friendly meals. Cultivating a safe place to share ideas, learn about about nutrition, and make a meal with their neighbor has been instrumental to making Hotel Sandford a safe and fun place to live. I've had residents tell me, 'I wish I learned this sooner.' I've had another resident tell me he lost 13 pounds 'eating those pizza things Amanda taught us to make.' Not only has there been positive feedback from the residents, but staff have seen a noticeable shift in residents' behavior. Once standoffish and avoidant, most residents were coming to the Leah's Pantry workshop for the 'free food.' Now, residents are coming early and staying late to chat with their neighbors!"

The residents' enthusiasm, curiosity, and motivation to participate in their own health and dietary changes is consistently growing, and I am excited to see what is in store for us through these workshops in the future!

Intern Post- Mari Bretthauer from San Francisco State University

Note from LP Staff: Mari, you are hardworking, positive, and clearly a leader! You took initiative daily, and fit in easily with the wide range of populations that we serve. We are so grateful for your invaluable support and wish that you could stay on longer! 

  Mari was always moving at light speed during workshops so this is somehow the only picture we captured of her (sitting down. . .for once)!

Mari was always moving at light speed during workshops so this is somehow the only picture we captured of her (sitting down. . .for once)!

I will never forget my time at Leah’s Pantry. As a San Francisco State University graduate with a BS in Health Education, I was looking for an internship that would allow me to work directly with the community. Leah’s Pantry was my first choice because they have first-hand knowledge and look into what is actually happening in communities in San Francisco. Their organization was new to me, I had never heard of Leah’s Pantry before I saw it on a list of internships to choose from. Their description and website made it clear: this was what I wanted to do. I am so lucky to have been placed at this organization with people who are so dedicated and passionate about their work. They inspired me to continue to work in this field and expand my fight for social justice issues. Working at Leah’s Pantry has been the highlight of my college career.

 I learned about food inequality throughout my whole college experience but I never had the chance to go into a community and see what it actually looks like. I wanted to see how they apply all the things I learned throughout my major into real life application. I was amazed to see how many sites this small organization can visit in a single day, trying to meet and change people’s perspective on healthy living. It was truly inspiring to see their dedication, creativity, and willpower that they had for the communities they are serving. They helped me gain my voice to really find out what it is that I want to do and to go for things that aren’t always the easiest choice. They have showed me what my passions are and how to go about finding them in my everyday career. 

Through this internship I was able to work hands-on in communities that were suffering from food inaccessibility, and poverty. I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is for people struggling to survive to be open to learning about healthy food choices. Their persistence against these odds is admirable. I especially liked working with children at the Boys and Girls Club at Columbia Park. To see kids faces when they accomplished something or tried something new will stay with me. It always surprised me during taste tests when kids would ask what they are trying that day and hide the shock when they tell me that they have never tried it before. Even though the kids learned to love vegetables I would get the occasional “Ms. Teacher, Ms. Teacher, when are we making chicken?” It was an eye-opening experience to see how lucky I am and that it is so important to keep these programs going so that every child can experience what a bell pepper or cucumber tastes like. 

But one of my favorite programs was the “Feeding Potrero” program because working with Mona, Niesha, Lorianne, and Joe made every Wednesday so much better. No matter what they were going through they always had jokes to tell, or stories you needed to hear. They really cared about their community and helping it in anyway that they could. They inspired me to always be content with what I have and to always have a smile on my face.

 I really want to thank Monica, Danielle, Alex, Loretta and Jessie for their hard work in teaching and guiding me through my process. I also want to thank the “Feeding Potrero” catering team for opening their arms to me and making me feel welcome; I really appreciate you and learned so much from each and every one of you. I will truly miss working here and the people that I have met.

Intern Post- Lauren Bleamel from San Francisco State

From Leah's Pantry Staff: Lauren, working with you was such a positive experience. You are hardworking, thoughtful, and clearly passionate about the work. Thanks for all of your help with workshops, social media (#MeatlessMonday), and various events. We are so happy that you're doing retail food demos for us this summer! And good luck with your move and next chapter in Hawaii. Thank you and aloha! 

As a Health Education student at San Francisco State, I was given the opportunity to intern at Leah’s Pantry over the course of my final semester. I requested Leah’s Pantry as my internship site because of my interest in nutrition; I believe nutrition plays a huge role in our overall health and well being, yet there are many social determinants preventing individuals and entire communities from maintaining a healthy diet. My internship was an invaluable experience, as I was able to see everything I have learned in the SFSU Health Education program being applied and put into action. During my 12 weeks with Leah’s Pantry, I assisted with Food Smarts Workshops throughout the city, worked with the Feeding Potrero catering team, and helped with tabling events in SF and Solano County. I was also able to participate in the Food Smarts Training Program for Educators, which was a great learning experience. I am so grateful to have been able to work with and learn from Monica, Alex, Danielle, Erin, Jessie, and Aoi, who show their passion and dedication to helping others in everything they do. My internship was overall a wonderful experience and I am looking forward to applying all that I have learned at Leah’s Pantry to my future adventures! :)

“Now, I love to cook!....I can’t stop cooking”

This is the second in a series of posts profiling the residents who serve on the Feeding Potrero Catering Team. Over the past year and a half, this team of Potrero Hill Terraces and Annex community members, under supervision of Leah’s Pantry staff, has bonded over a love of good food and a desire to uplift their community. Cooking together in love and service of the community, has turned this team into a family. We wanted to share a little bit about each member. Here's Niesha! 

Niesha Brown has been an indispensible member of our Feeding Potrero catering team over the past 2 years. This 39 year old mother of an adult son is an ambitious, caring, community-minded woman. And lucky for us, she’s an unstoppable cook who started cooking at the age of 10. Her parents were busy working and Niesha had to make food for herself. She didn’t consider it “fun” then but as adult, she declares, “Now, I love to cook!....I can’t stop cooking.”

Niesha credits the older women in her life with providing her culinary training-- her mom, aunts, and her mother-in-law were a significant  source of some of her best tips and recipes. Her mom would send her to her aunt’s house where she watched her make her famous potato salad. Eventually Niesha became the expert potato salad maker at the age of 13.  

As a young adult, Niesha moved out of her mother’s home and began raising her own family. Her Nicaraguan mother-in-law was another great source of culinary skills.  Her mother-in-law’s way of making rice is still one of her favorite techniques. The secret is to simmer water or broth separately from the rice, then add the hot liquid to the rice pot. The grains stay separate, fluffy, and firm.

While acknowledging the culinary influence of others, Niesha also recognizes her own culinary style: “I like to do my thing.” She says she gets tired of eating the same things and seeks to evolve from the tastes and skills she learned as a child. Niesha continues to look for new culinary ideas to make her own. She credits her work with Leah’s Pantry for providing inspiration with vegetables and healthier seasonings. She says that the hands-on experience of preparing delicious dishes with fresh produce is responsible for some new habits. “By me working with Leah’s Pantry, it just opened my eyes to much more things that are out there. Things that I would never have tried before, like persimmon….” She has started cooking mostly with olive oil, roasting vegetables, frying her food less, and eating more fresh vegetables. Roasting is now one of her favorite techniques: “All I am doing is roasting, roasting vegetables…. It’s good,” she exclaims. She has come to appreciate the taste of fresh vegetables without the use of heavy salty seasonings. Niesha attests that cooking on the team has resulted in weaning herself off chips and soda and eating more fruits and vegetables. These changes have made her “feel much better on the inside.”

Being a professional cook and opening a restaurant was a dream Niesha shared with her belated husband. Even though he died before they could realize that dream, she still cooks to impress. “For the individual that is eating my food, you want them to be like ‘Damn, that’s good!’” She is very proud that the neighborhood is buzzing with conversation as a result of the delicious food that she and the Feeding Potrero team prepares. Cooking for the families at Potrero Hill with the catering team feels incredibly important to her. In addition to enjoying cooking and the praise it garners, providing people in her community with a pleasurable experience is an important part of giving back. Growing up around aunties and uncles gathering together with food, fun, and love left a lasting impression on Niesha and is a gift she wants to share.  

There is one person she finds the hardest to impress with her cooking: her mother. While her mother enjoys Niesha’s cooking, she often serves as her primary food critic. Still, Niesha regularly sends plates over to her mom--proof that she truly feeds as a means to express her love. And in that generous spirit, Niesha happily shares the secret of her family’s potato salad: finely chopped pimiento.


A Complete Kitchen

We are so excited to share this piece written by one of our favorite facilitators, Ellen Garcia. This story documents Ellen's experience facilitating a cooking class at an SRO in San Francisco. It provides an illustrative, and at times humorous, glimpse into our work, the colorful lives of residents, and the challenging living conditions within SROs. 

A Complete Kitchen
Ellen Garcia

The elevator in San Francisco’s No Name Hotel doesn’t go to the basement, though that’s where the kitchen is. It’s the only shared kitchen for over 150 permanent residents and boasts an extra-large flat screen TV, if not serviceable cooking equipment, but only the most able-bodied, determined residents can get to it. 

The first time I came to teach a cooking class here, I was six months pregnant and not at all prepared to carry my 30-pound cart of groceries and equipment down the stairs. I did anyway; one signs up for surprises like this as a public health worker. A resident case manager, young and fresh and clearly new to the job, assured me afterwards that the elevator was being repaired. But it’s been two years since then. In the mean time if you don’t want to carry your pots and groceries all the way down to the first floor, through reception, down a long stairwell, and through another hallway, well, you’re out of luck. Residents don’t bother complaining anymore.

Over 30,000 people, more than 5% of the total population of San Francisco, live in Single-Room Occupancy Hotels (SROs). This is more people than live in city public and subsidized Section 8 housing combined. SROs were an important source of low-income housing in many US cities until they were systematically removed in the latter 20th century under the guise of urban renewal. Today, San Francisco is one of the few American cities that still contains a significant number of SROs.

Not surprisingly, when I arrive to teach class on an overcast Thursday afternoon, there’s no one in the kitchen except a 20-something transvestite named H. She’s glued to the TV blaring “The Wendy Show” and, unlike most folks who happen upon me in an SRO kitchen, she’s utterly uninterested in what I’m doing there. With about 15 minutes to prep, I begin cleaning. The countertops are dusty. A fluorescent light flutters overhead. A roach scuttles past my foot as I wipe stuck-on remnants of meals long past from the sink; I bring all my own soap, rags, and equipment because the building won’t allow storage there for anything smaller than a microwave. If residents have any fresh food or cooking supplies, they must keep these in their small rooms. 

Soon, residents begin trickling in for my class. It’s the last in a series of six, typical of the “healthy cooking” workshops offered throughout California on behalf of the government-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). The state pays for nutrition education programs by providing SNAP funds to smaller organizations such as the San Francisco Marin Food Bank or, in this case, a nonprofit called Leah’s Pantry. It’s a complicated, highly politicized bureaucratic mechanism that is invisible to participants; most have no idea how these classes come about, and I don’t emphasize it. Being perceived as a government representative — whether or not I really am— might not endear me to everyone in the community. 

Since today is the last class in the series, there’s a celebratory feeling in the air. This time I’m demonstrating a slightly more complicated recipe, individual pizzas with Portobello mushrooms as a base. I will use the oven for this, which I’ve never tried here, and am just crossing my fingers that it works well enough. As I check inside, I block residents’ view of it with my back in case something with four (or more) legs comes running out. Participants wouldn’t blame me if the oven had roaches, of course, but it would ruin their appetites all the same. I learned this lesson when teaching a class series at another SRO down the street; its lone kitchen was not really a kitchen at all but rather a dingy community room with sink and stovetop off to one side, glue mousetraps adorning every corner. I had accidentally placed my rice cooker on top of a trap and it got stuck to the side as I was setting up. My class participants were too polite to say anything, but few ate the pumpkin oatmeal I prepared that day. 

Most of San Francisco’s SROs are located in the Tenderloin, South of Market, Mid-Market, Chinatown, and Mission districts. Although they have housed much of the city’s low-income and immigrant population for generations, these centrally-located neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying as a new tech boom causes real estate values to soar. According to report published recently by Stanford University’s Peninsula Press, while San Francisco’s overall eviction rate has risen by an alarming 60% in the past 5 years, eviction rates in these neighborhoods have gone up even faster— as much as 800% in the Tenderloin, for example. 

About eight participants arrive for my class on this day including S., a tall, swaggering white woman with a raspy southern drawl that reminds me of Janis Joplin. On the first day of the series, she reminded me that we had, indeed, met before— when I came to teach my previous series. She hadn’t continued with that class because she was still in a wheelchair and couldn’t get downstairs to the kitchen. I tried to hide my disbelief at her transformation since then; she looked like she’d lost 100 pounds and reverse-aged 20 years. And she was coherent. The woman I remembered could barely hold a steady gaze and said nothing I could understand. Today, she’s bubbly and excited. She can’t wait to learn to make mushroom pizzas because, having discovered that she’s allergic to gluten, she has had to stop enjoying one of the few filling meals she can afford.

Just as we get started, G. arrives. He was one of 14 graduates of my previous cooking series. He is a big man with a bad heart condition, prone to bouts of aggression. He often shows up right after my class has started, declaring that we must have changed the day of the class and he’s very sorry but he needs to use the stove right then, and proceeds to cook an elaborate rich meal as I prepare my salad or fruit smoothies or some other modest healthy recipe. Today he is frying two giant t-bone steaks, which he will eat, all by himself, in front of my participants as they wait for their healthy vegetarian pizzas. 

Other participants are clearly annoyed but, like everyone else in the building, they know to give G. plenty of space. In some ways I’m just happy someone is cooking in here. Most residents eat fast food from places in the neighborhood, or St. Anthony’s free meals down the street, or cheap microwaveable meals in their rooms. And it’s not just because the elevator keeps them from the dingy kitchen. It’s also the chance of an unwanted encounter with a neighbor that wants a bite of their food or makes them feel unsafe somehow. Or worse, having to eat alone in a space meant for socializing. 

Average rent for a single SRO unit jumped from approximately $200/month in 1990 to $500 in 2000. Today, it’s not uncommon for a single room to rent for $1200 or more.

All of a sudden, S. notices a puddle of water growing in her corner of the room. It starts at the painted cinderblock wall and quickly advances towards the beat-up folding table where she’s seated. Just as she steps out of the way, a janitor arrives with a mop and bucket— as if on cue— and quietly tries to get it under control. Soon another maintenance worker arrives and informs me, via a Tagalog-speaking participant, that he’s shutting off the water. 

Participants seem unsurprised and unconcerned about the leak, but look at me anxiously to see whether I will cancel the class. (I like to say I can give a class anywhere there’s running water, and that’s mostly true.) But fortunately I’ve done all my prep already, so we can continue. The maintenance guy flashes 10 fingers at me which I’m told means the water should be back on in about 10 minutes.

I try to get my class back on track as the janitor finishes mopping up and S. finds another seat. Today, in addition to our recipe and end-of-class celebration, we will discuss microwave safety. This is not part of my usual lesson plan, which focuses each week on a simple nutrition concept and related easy, inexpensive recipe. But participants requested we discuss it because the building is plagued with microwave fires. 

An SRO unit is typically a small room, perhaps 100 square feet or less, with shared bathroom facilities down the hall. Rooms are intended to house individuals and occasionally couples, but it’s not uncommon to find three or four working men or a small family sharing one in some buildings. Cooking facilities range from in-room sinks and electric burners in some newer buildings to a shared kitchen on each floor to a single kitchen to no kitchen whatsoever. Older buildings prohibit residents from keeping hot plates or other appliances in their rooms, or from cooking at all, due to fire hazard from old wiring and inattention.

“People don’t know you can’t put metal in there,” J. tells me as I pass out a simple flyer I’ve created about microwave safety. She’s a former Marin housewife who often tells stories about the grand house she and her husband used to have. She never says how she got here.

“At least once a month, the fire alarm goes off and we’re all out in the street,” says another participant, B. “Sometimes in the middle of the night, and we have to stand out there in our slippers with all the junkies and street zombies.” 

“If it keeps on like this, management could outlaw microwaves in our rooms. Then what do we do?” 

I suggest participants might post the flyers on their floors or even ask the social worker to distribute them to all new residents. 

“It won’t make a difference,” says S., shrugging. “A lot of people here can’t read.

The No Name Hotel is just a few blocks from Twitter, Uber, Square, and Dolby corporate headquarters, as well as numerous new high-rise condo developments. Currently, it costs about $3,000 a month to rent a market-rate 1-bedroom in this area and about $800,000 to buy one.

Once the oven is preheated, I shift gears towards my Portobello pizza demonstration. As often happens when I introduce a new ingredient or cooking method, participants are politely doubtful and have lots of questions. S. asks where I bought the mushrooms, because the ones she’d seen at the Farmer’s Market were really expensive. (Sprouts market in Daly City, I explain, but only after simple math revealed that the ones they sell wrapped in plastic cost half as much per pound as the loose ones! This leads to a brief review of unit pricing.)

L., a genteel, retired woman from the Philippines who graduated from my previous series but returned for this one because she enjoys the company, explains that she is afraid to eat mushrooms. As always, she passes out my paper copies of the recipes.

“How do you know which ones are poisonous?” she asks worriedly, looking at my baking tray like the food on it might be preparing to kill her.

“The ones in the stores are not poisonous,” I try to reassure her. She is not convinced.

Then we talk about the pizza sauce, which I found at a Grocery Outlet for $1.29. A quick review of the ingredients and nutrition facts reveals that it’s got plenty of sugar in it. I try to put this in context for everyone, explaining that although I generally avoid packaged foods with added sugar, in this case I made an exception because I’m using so little per serving— only about ½ teaspoon worth of added sugar for a 12¢ portion. 

Soon my mushrooms are done pre-cooking and I remove them from the oven, beads of sweat dripping down each one. They’ve shrunk considerably. 

“How many of those would you eat at once?” S. asks. 

“I would eat one or two with a salad,” I tell her. “They are a lot more filling than you think.” She explains that in her gluten-eating days, she could devour an entire pizza at once. Though she rarely got the chance.

San Francisco’s SRO population includes recently emigrated Latino and Asian immigrants, disabled vets, active IV drug users, the mentally ill, and retired folks with no other “affordable” housing options— often all mixed together in any given building. 

I layer sauce, sliced bell pepper, shredded cheese, and dried oregano onto the mushrooms, but participants are still doubtful. I offer to make one without cheese for M., a retired African-American woman who lived on the streets for 20 years and says she is allergic to milk products. She declines my offer however. She doesn’t want one at all. Neither does her friend F., who spent years on the street herself as a prostitute and has all variety of permanent bumps and scars to tell the tale for her. She comes to class in a flowing, flowered dress and heels every week.

As the pizzas bake in the oven, the class turns to a lively discussion about whether canned items from the Food Bank are safe to eat. The Food Bank runs a weekly pantry in the building and many items it distributes are past date. Their volunteers distribute literature explaining how to interpret the code dates on packages and that expired foods can be OK, but. residents like M. are still afraid of them. 

M. goes on at great length about a bout of food poisoning she experienced years ago, when still on the streets, from canned salmon. I do my best to assure everyone that food from the Food Bank is safe. But I don’t blame them for their vigilance. Without reliable access to fresh food and means to cook it, many SRO residents have horror stories to share about hesitantly eating food that turned out to be spoiled, that wasn’t what it was supposed to be, that broke their teeth, that was just a waste of the last few dollars they had. Then there are the stories I don’t hear— about what happens at the end of the month if money runs out and there’s no food at all. 

There is no large supermarket in the neighborhood where the No-Name Hotel is located. Able-bodied residents looking for fresh groceries must walk or take the bus to a FoodsCo in the Mission district. Older residents, and those with disabilities, instead rely on small corner stores selling little more than junk food and liquor. One exception, however, is the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in Civic Center Plaza, steps from the gleaming gold dome of City Hall. Here residents can buy fresh produce using EBT cards as well as WIC and a variety of other vouchers. Especially enterprising folks know to arrive at closing time, when vendors are more likely to offer unsold items at deeply discounted rates or for free.

M. is still talking about the salmon incident when I take my pizzas out of the oven. She has started to repeat herself, speaking faster and faster as if anticipating someone might try to cut her off, but no one does. Participants in this group have actually come to treat one another quite generously. It’s a nice turn of events since most had never spoken to one another when the series began 6 weeks ago. 

I’m not always so lucky. In the first class I taught for SRO residents, just down the block, I had one elderly male participant whose tendency to talk over others— due to a brain disorder— became so frustrating to another participant, herself going through drug withdrawal, that the two got into a frightening altercation in class. What I remember most was that the other participants seemed completely unphased by the fight, instead focused totally on their do-gooder teacher to see how I would handle it. Fortunately the building manager intervened before things got physical and, after asking the group to reflect for a moment on how we could create a safe, respectful space together, I resumed making my black bean pineapple salsa without incident. 

F. and J., now sensing that the class conversation has veered off track, affectionately steer M. towards her other favorite topic: things she likes to cook. Unlike most other participants in this class, M. is an avid cook and makes complex meals every day in her room to share with friends in the building. Her specialty is Southern food and she describes in detail how she plans tonight to dredge tilapia in corn flour and lightly fry it in her small electric skillet. I’m thinking I’ll try the same thing when I get home to my run-down, but comparatively luxurious, apartment kitchen. Her mouth-watering description has the whole group transfixed as I distribute my little mushroom pizzas to 5 willing participants. L. hands out napkins.

Today, many of San Francisco’s better-kept SROs are managed by large nonprofit corporations. These corporations are dedicated to preserving low-income housing in what is arguably the most expensive city in America; they buy and rehabilitate old buildings, or build them, and offer onsite programs such as social workers, addiction or vocational counseling, health care, and life skills classes. Some even run vegetable gardens where residents can volunteer in exchange for free produce. Privately-owned buildings are more likely to be dilapidated and infested with roaches, bedbugs, or mice. Though some private landlords take good care of their buildings, others take advantage of low-income residents with few housing options, allowing their buildings to fall into dangerous disrepair.

The group gets quiet as folks begin sampling their pizzas. Finally I hear someone say “Mmmm, this is not what I expected at all. It actually tastes like pizza!” Soon others share their impressions, mostly positive. 

We’ve only got about five minutes left, so I begin distributing “graduation gifts” to the seven people completing the series. These are called CookIt Kits and are supplied by the nonprofit that organizes my classes. Each kit contains an individual-sized crockpot, real kitchen knife, cutting board, good-quality can opener, measuring spoons and cups, and a variety of other small kitchen items. The whole kit fits into a tote bag. It’s meant to supply everything an SRO resident needs to cook in his or her room, and I get to give one to anyone who comes to four or more of six classes in my series. For some, these will be the first kitchen supplies they’ve owned in years or ever. For others, though no one admits this, they’re currency; stories abound of residents selling the contents. Regardless of what becomes of them, however, people seem genuinely touched by the practicality and thoughtfulness of the kits and often act as if I bought each item personally. 

Today is no exception. One participant, P., looks teary as she pulls item after item from her tote bag, exclaiming “There’s more?!” after each one and arranging it with the rest of the pile on the table in front of her. 

“It’s like the Christmas stocking when I was little,” she says emotionally.

An older Chinese man, who has literally never spoken in class but attended faithfully each week— perhaps he doesn’t understand English— smiles broadly to himself as he hugs his bag to his chest and hobbles out the door.

The political district of San Francisco that includes the No Name Hotel, and the majority of the city’s SROs, has the lowest median income of all 11 districts (less than $27,000 a year to the city’s $84,000). It has the highest percentage of residents living in poverty, the highest percentage of residents living alone, the highest percentage of homeless residents, the highest percentage of seniors, and the highest number of residents receiving free meals from city-funded programs and free dining rooms (aka “soup kitchens”). But a disproportionate number of residents receive no government benefits at all. They may have criminal history that disqualified them in the past or be undocumented immigrants; others are simply disenfranchised from the enrollment process or earn a little too much to be eligible. Not surprisingly, over 45% of this district’s residents are at risk for food insecurity. 

Among all the excitement, M. decides to try the pizza after all. “This kind of cheese doesn’t make me sick,” she says as she takes a wide bite. Then L., the woman who thought my mushrooms might poison her, changes her mind and takes one. 

“I’m going to make this,” M. says as she finishes her pizza. “F—, let’s come down here and make a batch next week after we go shopping.” F. nods in agreement.

As often happens on the last day of class, participants linger long after the official ending time to chat with one another and share any final thoughts with me personally. If things have gone well, someone asks at this point when I’m coming back or gives me a hug. 

Today the group presents me with a small white pastry box tied up with multicolored ribbon like a gift. It’s two perfect rocky road double chip cookies from an upscale bakery nearby street that caters to tech and government employees.

“We thought you should get something on the last day, too,” M. says. “They’re not like the healthy stuff you make for us, but sometimes you say ‘Screw it’ and celebrate.”

According to the San Francisco Food Security Task Force, 15% of residential units in this political district lack a “complete kitchen,” defined as a sink with running water, stove or range top, and refrigerator. The definition makes no stipulation about the space itself, for example, that it includes a place for people to sit and eat together.

Having cleaned up with once-again running water, I haul my grocery cart back down the basement hallway, up the long set of stairs, past reception, and out into the afternoon. Even on foggy San Francisco days I’m blinded by daylight when exiting the No Name Hotel. My eyes have just started to adjust when I notice, in the shadow of an abandoned building across the street, a participant from one of my previous workshops nearby— C.— wandering out into traffic with a look of bewilderment on his face. A stroke several years ago diminished his mental function and he had no family left to care for him, which is why he lives now in an SRO. He ends most sentences halfway through with “Sorry, I can’t think.” 

C. comes to a stop in the middle of the busy street and oncoming cars start honking. If I didn’t know better, I’m thinking to myself, if I was driving one of those cars, I might assume he was on drugs from the look of him. But before I can call out to him, he sees me on the sidewalk. He studies my face for a second, looks down at my grocery cart, back at my face, and then smiles. He starts walking towards me.

To learn more about community cooking and nutrition programs in San Francisco and beyond, contact or one of many other agencies doing similar work, including:
Cooking Matters/No Kid Hungry:
Urban Sprouts:
University of California Cooperative Extension:
Or consult the USDA’s resources for Nutrition Educators:  

Ellen Garcia 2016; originally published in Comestible Issue 3.

Leah's Pantry is seeking BOD candidates

Leah's Pantry is currently seeking candidates to serve on the Board of Directors.  Job description here:

Leah’s Pantry is looking for motivated, enthusiastic board members to guide and support our organization, which inspires healthy eating for all through a wide variety of nutrition education and cooking programs.  Our main products are Food Smarts (in-person classes and trainings) and, a portfolio of online nutrition education products.  We also do recipe development and trauma-informed community meals and programs.   The organization works throughout California but the main office and most board members are in the Bay Area.  The full Board meets six times per year in San Francisco and has excellent communication with the executive director.  Each board member participates in at least one of three committees: finance, governance or development, and participates in committee work throughout the year via email, phone and in-person meetings. The primary roles of board members are to serve as ambassadors for the organization and help build capacity through fundraising. They make personal contributions of time, money, connections and expertise.  In particular, we are seeking board members with legal expertise, fundraising experience or previous experience serving on a nonprofit board of directors, but anyone with interest is encouraged to reach out.   Please contact Board President Kate Bedford at for more information.


Looking Back and Planning Ahead

Adrienne with API youth.jpg

Happy New Year! We hope that 2017 has started off well for you. Transitioning to a new year always inspires some reflection and looking ahead at Leah’s Pantry. As such, we want to share some of our 2016 highlights, along with some upcoming work that we’re particularly excited about.  

2016- Highlights:

  • Our user base for, our online cooking resource, grew from last year by 168%. The site had over 100,000 viewers!

  • We received an American Public Health Association award for our Mini-Course, our self-guided online nutrition classes. Over 40 programs across California have adopted this course so far this year.  

  • We continued to build our large network of “Food Smart” organizations through our train-the-trainer projects. Last year, we trained over 100 individuals from partner agencies across California. We value the opportunity to expand our impact by providing our partners with the nutrition resources they need to reach their clients.

2017- What’s to Come:

  • The publication of two new cookbooks! We’ve been working closely with groups of Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian, Marshallese, and San Diego-based Native American populations to create delicious, easy and affordable recipes.

  • Imperfect Produce is donating over 12,000 pounds of produce to our programs in San Francisco. This means that all of our workshop participants will receive fresh produce for specific recipes every class.

  • Increased involvement in our San Diego County food recovery efforts. As a member of the San Diego Food Systems Alliance, we are advocating for a technology-based, county-wide food recovery solution that prioritizes the distribution of healthier prepared foods.

  • The continued expansion of as the nation’s premier online nutrition education solution. It’s taking over the world, one kitchen at a time.

  • The development and implementation of trauma-informed nutrition programs that take a deeper look at the relationships between trauma, food, and healing.

Questions about our work and/or interested in getting involved? Visit us online or email

May 2017 be a happy, healthy, and delicious year for you!


Award-Winning Mini Course

Adrienne and Jessica traveled to Denver last month to present two sessions on the Mini Course at the 2016 APHA Annual Meeting and Expo where we shared how the online course was developed, the benefits and main features of the course, and the results from our pilot user testing last year. The conference was inspiring and gave us new perspectives to our work. 12,000 public health professionals in attendance!

We are happy to announce that we won an award from the Public Health Education and Health Promotion Section for the Mini Course in the Multi-Media Materials Category. We so are honored to receive this award! Thank you again to our partners who helped us pilot the Mini Course and give feedback. We couldn’t have done it without you!

Have you created your free account yet? Go to to get started.

You can also download our Mini Course Getting Started Guide from the Toolkit to help begin promotion and outreach to your program participants. Contact Jessica Silldorff with any technical or outreach-related questions.

Thank you, Ralph

As some of you may have heard, Ralph Cooper, also known as our Slow Cooker Chef, passed away on September 27, 2016. Ralph was an inspiration to our organization and came to represent the work we do in SROs in the Tenderloin, SOMA, and Mission neighborhoods.

Ralph was known as the Slow Cooker Chef because he was able to make delicious and nutritious meals in a single crockpot. Many of our slow cooker recipes have been inspired by Ralph. He began working with Leah's Pantry to provide cooking demos to residents living in SROs, educating participants that cooking healthy is possible in small spaces. Ralph proactively scheduled classes, promoted the importance of his work, and even urged social workers to include his classes in their programming because he wholeheartedly believed in the importance of taking an active role with our health. Similar to Leah’s Pantry, Ralph considered cooking a big part of that.

Over the past two years working as a peer educator, Ralph conducted 81 crock-pot demonstrations reaching nearly 400 individuals! This important work could not have been done without the dedication and positive attitude that came so naturally to Ralph. Further, Ralph reached the SRO population in an authentic and effective way; he used his personal experience to truly inspire healthy changes in hundreds of lives.

A few weeks ago, Monica and I were honored to attend a memorial service at Ralph's residence in the Coronado Hotel. Many of his neighbors, case managers, and friends from the neighborhood attended. We heard many stories about Baby Girl, Ralph’s beloved Chihuahua, but we mostly heard about Ralph's character and his desire to make the community a better place. Ralph did this through his crockpot demonstrations with Leah's Pantry but also in his day-to-day actions. Ralph gave extra food to the homeless, swept the sidewalk in front of his building, and acted a peacekeeper between neighbors on the streets.

As one of his neighbors so eloquently said, "Ralph gave a damn about the neighborhood! He didn't complain about the conditions of the community or who was causing trouble outside. He did something about it by cleaning up, cooking food, and creating a space where we all wanted to live."

We miss you Ralph,
Alex and the Leah’s Pantry Staff

Reflections From Emma Draisin, Leah’s Pantry High School Summer Intern 2016


Though brief, my time working with Leah’s pantry has been an eye-opening and valuable experience. Through assisting in nutrition and cooking workshops for children, I learned to see the privilege of having easy access to healthy food and nutrition education in my own life. With two family practitioners as parents, I have been blessed by having healthy eating habits ingrained in my behavior from a young age. While I was previously hazily aware of my luck, assisting at workshops with children who had no help at home in eating balanced meals was heartbreaking. I saw firsthand how even a single workshop can impact these young kids.

I also assisted Leah’s Pantry with their portion of the Homebridge training, an intensive program for home-care and supportive service providers that assist the elderly and disabled. Leah’s Pantry taught trainees food safety and nutrition basics, along with how to shop and cook healthy meals on a budget. The home-care trainees left with a new confidence in their care-taking abilities and the new understanding that food could be simple, tasty, and good for you.

When I was not at workshops, I was in the office uploading new recipes to and updating farmers’ market information. Though this work was not as hands-on as the workshops, I took joy in remembering the excitement and amazement of the adults at workshops when shown The website is truly unique and a wonderful resource for SRO residents or low-income Californians. I can see myself using it in the future; when I go to college I’m sure that limited kitchen recipes will be a life-saver for dorm living.

During my time at Leah’s Pantry, I was inspired and impressed with the skill, passion, and dedication of the amazing staff. The SF staff is truly a blessing - each person brings their own energy and diverse professional backgrounds into teaching, and their ability to impact and inspire all workshop participants is outstanding.

As a high school Junior, Leah’s Pantry has shown me the immense need for nutrition education, and as I look toward my own future, I know my time here will shape the path I chose. I hope to return to Leah’s Pantry in summers to come, because I believe in the mission and I have seen the impact of this organization in my community.


Reflections from James Wang, a Summer Intern from San Francisco State

From Leah's Pantry Staff: James, we are sad to see you go! Thank you for your dedication, hard work, and positive energy over the past few months. Please stay in touch!

The City of San Francisco is a beautiful and broken city, filled with many different kinds of people that make up what it is today. One thing I have learned to appreciate through this internship is the recognition of the good things in contrast to the not-so-good things. Everywhere I go there seems to be similar problems in regards to the population’s health and the lack of resources and education. Leah’s Pantry recognizes this important need, and provides communities with the tools necessary to bring awareness to these health issues and formulate simple yet powerful ways to eat fresh and eat smart.

I have been blessed to work with all of the staff members of Leah’s Pantry and see the kind of work that they do. Sites such as the Boys and Girls Clubs that are scattered throughout San Francisco have centers for kids to spend their time being looked-after by caretakers and volunteers while school is out for the summer. Leah’s Pantry workshops teach these kids healthy recipes, as well as provide information about the importance of eating a variety of different fruits and vegetables to build stronger bodies and live healthier lives. The beautiful thing about this is that Leah’s Pantry doesn’t just provide ingredients to eat for a day, but tools and information to eat for a lifetime; information that is meant to be shared with everybody so the entire family can benefit from the child’s learning experience.

In the office I have helped develop curricula used in the workshops, like simple food passports for kids to write and draw descriptions of what they eat. I have noticed how much these kids enjoy putting thoughts onto paper as they learn about the different smells, tastes, and even sounds that are created when consuming different kinds of foods. It brings me a lot of joy to know that the work I put in the office is beneficial to enriching the lives of these communities and hopefully inspiring another individual to make a change in their health.

What does this internship mean to me? How does this apply to my own daily life? Watching all of the staff members practicing what they teach has caused me to be more mindful of my own health. Some of my favorite recipes in the Food Smarts recipe book, like the black bean and corn salad have become staples in my life. It feels great to know that even I can benefit and improve my health from the things I learn.

Leah’s Pantry is a hidden jewel of San Francisco, and the service they provide for the City is immensely valuable. I encourage those to give organizations like these more support, as they help inspire the communities of San Francisco and provide them with tools to eating healthier.

"Sexy Comes with Healthy"


This is the first in a series of posts profiling the residents who serve on the Feeding Potrero Catering Team. Over the past year, this team of Potrero Hill Terraces and Annex community members, under supervision of Leah’s Pantry staff, has bonded over a love of good food and a desire to uplift their community. Cooking together in love and service of the community, has turned this team into a family. We wanted to share a little bit about each member. (And soon we’ll post the voice recording of this interview with Mona; it’s worth a listen!) 

Mona Robinson is an ambitious, vibrant, and passionate long-time San Franciscan. In addition to being a food lover, she is a fount of jokes, joy, and life philosophy. Her parents came to San Francisco from Texas when they were a very young couple and raised Mona and her siblings here. She remembers riding her bike throughout San Francisco, stopping at Aquatic Park to swim, and fishing in the bay.  And though she was a bit young during the hippie era, she experienced plenty of the counterculture. Mona has many stories that highlight the dramatic changes in American life: “[my momma’s] birth certificate says ‘Colored,’ mine says ‘Negro,’ my children’s say ‘Black,’ and my grandchildren’s say ‘African American’…. isn’t that a trip?” 

Mona’s main personal and culinary influence is her tough and sassy mother whose nickname is ‘Peaches.’ She credits her mother with encouraging her to develop real skills for living, especially the ability to cook something delicious from nothing. The story goes: her mother who had her at age 15, could only prepare boxed macaroni and cheese, barbecued Spam, and canned green beans. Mona’s father arranged for an elderly lady from the church to come teach her mother how to cook. “Boy, then my momma perfected Thanksgiving and Christmas…that is when she started putting some love in her food,” Mona declares. She is most impressed by her mother’s “stand at attention rice”—rice where each grain is separate and fluffy. But Mona’s taste ventures far from her mother’s menu to include: sashimi, cuttlefish, artichokes, and even chocolate-covered grasshoppers. It was her father, who joined the Navy at age 14 and traveled the world, who cultivated her taste for exotic foods. “He would take us out to eat at different restaurants but we couldn’t order chicken. We had to try new things.”

It was the food lover in Mona that led her to choose Potrero Hill as a home for herself and her little boys in 1983. On a visit to check out the neighborhood, she saw all the old people and “Big Mamas,” community matriarchs who cooked and had gardens in their front yards. The good, old-fashioned food smells are what sealed the deal. Another significant decision Mona made at a young age was to take care of her body and eat healthy food so that she could thrive. “I am not going to lie,” Mona says, “I like looking at sexy people…. and sexy comes with healthy.” She is proud of how she can add flavor to food while still making it healthy.

Even though she has retired from work in construction, landscaping, and security, Mona has plenty of energy for her new work with Healthy Generations and on the Feeding Potrero team. Feeding and being there for the children and their families feels like a life calling to Mona. “We got love in us around here and we all like each other and we like to put our best out… We are making magic here... This is where I am supposed to be.”

Searching for the Rainbow at Sherman Elementary Garden Club

When the last bell rang on Friday releasing students for the weekend in south San Diego, kindergarteners, first graders, and second graders sprinted out from their classrooms and into the school garden. Early arrivers excitedly argued over who got to water the plants with the giant garden hose first. More students skipped in with big grins, eager to see what had grown since they were last there. 

We joined the Sherman Elementary Garden Club last week to teach students about eating the rainbow of fruits and vegetables. This Food Smarts activity usually requires some imagination as we ask participants to think of fruits and vegetables that fall into each color category, but at Sherman Elementary, we adapted the lesson and sent the kids on a scavenger hunt. Their goal was to find (and taste!) as many colors of the rainbow as they could right there in the garden. The group of about 30 students was split up into three groups, which rotated every 20 minutes for one hour. The other groups made butterfly crafts and helped Pablo prune the garden. I was impressed that every student remained fully engaged for the entire hour.

One student, a self-described "Veggie Whisperer", was willing to put just about anything in his mouth. He LOVED vegetables and wanted everyone to know it! Others were enthusiastic about trying things like basil leaves right off the plant, but spit it out when the bitter flavor hit their tongue. This didn't deter them from trying something else though! When a couple beets were pulled up from the ground, the kids beamed with pride and asked to have their picture taken with it.

When we gathered back together to share what was found on the scavenger hunt, some students held out handfuls of vegetables while others held up colorful drawings of what they observed, or imagined could grow, in the garden. Many of the students knew that fruits and vegetables gave us vitamins to keep us healthy, and were excited to learn that each color gave us specific types of vitamins and minerals.

At the end of the hour, each student walked out with some fresh veggies, an recipe card for Apple Celery Slaw to share with their family, and an expanded understanding of how the food they're growing keeps them healthy and strong.