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.
By 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 Leah’s Pantry or one of many other agencies doing similar work, including:
Cooking Matters/No Kid Hungry: https://cookingmatters.org/
Urban Sprouts: http://www.urbansprouts.org/
University of California Cooperative Extension: http://cesantaclara.ucanr.edu/
Or consult the USDA’s resources for Nutrition Educators: http://www.fns.usda.gov/get-involved/provide-nutrition-education
Ⓒ Ellen Garcia 2016; originally published in Comestible Issue 3.