More than A Meal

Photos courtesy of St. Anthony’s Dining Room SAN FRANCISCO — Andrew Hudson is holding a pear in his left hand and wearing a big smile. “I love fruit! Oranges, plums, nectarines. Fruit is good for you!” Called Dancer by his friends, the 59-year-old Atlanta native is a regular guest at St. Anthony’s Dining Room,  which serves free hot meals to the needy 365 days a year. “Bring more nectarines!” Andrew says.

Three times a week the Dining Room picks up donations of fresh fruit, much of it organic, from the South San Francisco warehouse of The FruitGuys, a farm-fresh produce delivery service. Founder and CEO Chris Mittelstaedt says St. Anthony’s was the first group to receive donations in the company’s early years and set the tempo for its expanding GoodWorks philanthropic program. “We had been giving away leftover fruit to people on the street but as we grew it was too much,” says Chris. “I knew of St. Anthony’s and we started donating to them. It must be at least 10 years now.”

Eleven years and seven months, actually. The first donation was received on May 8th, 2000.  Four cases of bananas to be exact. Now anywhere from 40-70 boxes of mixed fruit are being donated each week. At about 40 pounds a box, that’s around 2,000 pounds a week, and more than 100,000 pounds a year.

“Without [The FruitGuys donation] we wouldn’t have any organics,” says Char Marsden, 48, one of the Dining Room’s four paid chefs. “We really appreciate that.” Born in Sydney, she is also an organic farmer who has been working for St. Anthony’s off and on for the last ten years. Char says she uses the soft fruit, such as bananas, berries, and ripe pears, for the senior breakfast. A lot of the guests have dental issues, such as missing teeth and gum disease, which makes eating hard fruit like apples difficult or impossible. “Sometimes I make apple sauce or mix the fruit with rice pudding.” Hard fruit (apples, oranges, hard pears) is offered whole at lunchtime and/or used for bag lunches. She says they use about 2,000 pounds of fruit a day.

Alfonso Salas is a prep chef who receives the fruit donations each week. “We wash and sort the fruit and I set aside the soft fruit for the seniors. Bananas are a big hit,” says Alfonso, who says he has a special affinity for the guests because he used to be one himself.   He says it is a huge help to Dining Room logistics to know they are getting large amounts of fresh fruit every week. “We know every week we are getting something. The other [fruit] donations are more random,” says the Salinas, CA native whose dad was a field manager for a lettuce farm. “I know about produce and this is good fruit.”

Chris of The FruitGuys says the fruit that is set aside for St. Anthony’s is perfectly fine fruit but doesn’t meet their “visual” standards for customers’ boxes: it may be sized improperly, slightly misshapen, or have too many natural blemishes, common in produce from small organic farms. “I have a deep-seated belief that if you have been lucky enough to succeed in business that you have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place and help those in need,” says Mittelstaedt. “I’m very thankful for our customers whose business with us allows us to grow our GoodWorks program and fulfill this mission. But there is always more to do!”

Each day the Dining Room serves up to 3,000 hot meals to men, women, and children who get a number on a slip of paper and then wait to be called in to eat. Seniors and families with children can come between 10-11:30; anyone can come from 11:30-1: 30 pm. The profile of the guests is a mix of seniors on fixed incomes who have no money left over for food after paying their rent; homeless people; people suffering from mental illness and/or addiction; families that are working poor; recent parolees; people who are long out of work or on disability; and those going through a rough patch. One out of four is a Veteran (dating as far back as World War II). Since the economic downturn in 2008, they have seen a 7% increase in guests, or about an additional 300 people a day. They are also seeing more families. It is open 365 days a year.

Founded October 4, 1950 by Father Alfred Boedekker, at the time the Franciscan pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church down the street, the Dining Room is now the gateway to an array of supportive social services run by the St. Anthony Foundation, including housing assistance and social workers, medical care, clothing, computer access, and job training. 2010 marked the Dining Room’s 60th anniversary and 37 millionth meal served.   The Dining Room also serves as a community center and hosts two monthly food distribution programs in conjunction with the San Francisco Food Bank.

The menu on a day in December, handwritten on a blackboard, says “Sloppy Joes, Salad with Mushrooms, Fruit.” Each day they need at least 50 volunteers to assist the small paid staff in prepping, cooking, and serving the food, as well as greeting guests and busing tables. Some ingredients and food are donated, other food is purchased from suppliers.  “The FruitGuys is our biggest donor of fresh produce and our only weekly donor,” says Karl Robillard, St. Anthony’s Senior Manager for Communications & Outreach. “It really is the backbone of our fresh fruit supply. Knowing it’s coming every week and that the fruit is seasonal takes some of the “Iron Chef” element out of the cooking and menu planning.”

“Fresh fruit is so important because over 70 percent of our guests do not have access to kitchen facilities, there are no grocery stores in the Tenderloin, and fresh fruit is very difficult to come by.   Our founder, Fr. Alfred always said, ”˜If there is a true need, the money will come.’   In this case, the true need is nutrition for thousands of guests who eat at St. Anthony’s every day.   FruitGuys is proof positive that this same spirit is alive and well today,”  said Shari Roeseler, Executive Director of St. Anthony Foundation.

The Dining Room at 45 Jones Street is an old cafeteria with cheerful murals that seats 180. It is in the basement of a century-old two-story building at the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin. In February 2012, it will move across the street into the St. Anthony Foundation building into temporary facilities while the current building is razed and a new 10-story building is erected with a new Dining Room and kitchen, plus 90 affordable housing units for seniors.


During the week of Dec. 17-24, St. Anthony’s will be accepting curbside donations of gently-used and new winter clothing and pantry items at 105 Golden Gate @ Jones Street, San Francisco. Donations are accepted year-round of  personal or family-sized portions  of fresh fruit, vegetables, canned and dried goods at 150 Golden Gate Avenue, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Large deliveries of  bulk food items  can be brought directly to St. Anthony Dining Room deliveries at 65 Jones St., everyday, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Call (415) 241-2600 or see their website for more information.

Pia Hinckle is Publisher of The FruitGuys Almanac.

Disclosure: The author is married to FruitGuys founder Chris Mittelstaedt.

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