Can a San Francisco family get by on two meals a day?

Can a San Francisco family get by on two meals a day?


Karla Yamileth Bernal Flores is almost certain she’s going to be offered a new job as a cook at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, the prestigious private school on San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill. Not only would the hourly pay be $6 higher than her previous job, but the position would be full time instead of part time. It would be a huge improvement for her and her two young sons, especially after they recently spent a year at the Star Community Home homeless shelter.

Food banks are popping up in wealthy enclaves. Senior centers struggle next to tech campuses. Why does this paradox exist? To understand food insecurity in the Bay Area, The Chronicle spent months with those experiencing it on a daily basis.

She’s excited. And yet, she is also nervous, because she knows the new income would make her ineligible for CalFresh — formerly known as food stamps — which currently makes up half of the family’s food budget, and it would reduce the rent subsidy she receives from San Francisco’s Prenatal Homeless Center.

She’s not sure, all in all, that the new job will be a net gain.

“It’s better, but it still won’t be enough,” says Flores, 27, rubbing her eyes over her high, wide cheeks. It’s a gesture she repeats often, interspersed with ironic laughter.

Since leaving the shelter, Flores has been sharing a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood with her sister. About half of the $3,000 rent is subsidized by the Prenatal Homeless Center. Together with their three young children, the two women live midway between the dilapidated Potrero Terrace public housing development and private homes valued at $2.5 million.

The single mothers take turns caring for the children while the other works. Flores’ sister — who did not want to be named for this story due to privacy concerns — works the night shift, spending 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. cleaning the Mid-Market headquarters of Uber, the ride-hailing company with a $62 billion valuation. Flores works weekends, often through the night to earn overtime, as a cook at Star Community Home.

Oscar Bernal, 10, watches a video game while eating a taco. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Oscar Bernal, 10, watches a video game while eating a taco.

(Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Despite their hard work, they can afford to feed their own family only two meals a day: a late breakfast and early supper. “If we had three meals a day we would run out of food,” says Flores, alternating between speaking in English and in Spanish, through a translator.

Dressed comfortably for a morning at home in a scoop-neck gray T-shirt and stretchy yoga pants, Flores heads to the kitchen while her son Khenan, 4, and niece Nicole, 8, spread out cards for a game on the polished dining room floor.

It is 10 a.m. and they haven’t eaten breakfast yet.

“I’m in a bit of difficulty right now,” says Flores. “I just bought mandarins. That was all I could afford.”

Because they’re running low on fresh groceries, Flores adds water to Krusteaz mix and serves the children pancakes with sliced bananas that her sister brought home from work — a leftover perk for Uber employees. She grabs a graham cracker and a cup of coffee for herself, following a common pattern of parents in food-insecure families, who often feed their children first and skip their own meals.

Flores and her sister each receive CalFresh benefits on the fourth of the month. That’s when they make a trip to Costco to buy eggs, milk and bulk foods that store or freeze well, like chicken drumsticks. After Costco, they go to FoodsCo in the Mission for fruit for the kids’ midday snacks, lettuce for tacos and other inexpensive produce. After the CalFresh benefits run out, Flores has budgeted $200 each month to spend on food.

If Flores gets the new job, her new income of $22 per hour, or $3,813 per month, would mean losing CalFresh, because it would put her just above the eligibility cut-off of $3,464 for a household of three, or twice the federal poverty level.

Oscar Bernal plays with a balloon in the hallway of his S.F. home as his mother, Karla Yamileth Bernal Flores, makes pancakes. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Oscar Bernal plays with a balloon in the hallway of his S.F. home as his mother, Karla Yamileth Bernal Flores, makes pancakes.

(Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Yet by Bay Area standards, they would still be in poverty. Flores would actually need to earn an almost unimaginable $59 per hour to independently support a family of three in San Francisco, according to Insight Center for Community Economic Development, an Oakland anti-poverty research group.

Relatively high wages compared to the rest of the country are a key reason that only 37 percent of the people who are considered food insecure in the Bay Area actually receive food assistance, according to Feeding America.

“For our working-class families, the minimum wage is going up, but is that comparable to food cost? No, it’s not. It’s still not matching the cost of raising a family in the city,” says Christina Velasco, former principal of Bryant Elementary, the 25th Street school at the border of the Mission and Potrero Hill where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Flores’ son Oscar is among them.

The amount it costs for a family of three, like Flores’, to live in San Francisco without private or public assistance increased by 60 percent between 2014 and 2018, from $76,352 to $126,361, according to the Insight Center. While the minimum wage increased from $10.74 to $15 per hour during the same period, it still only adds up to an annual full-time salary of $31,200.

Karla Yamileth Bernal Flores pours a cup of milk for her 10-year-old son, Oscar. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Karla Yamileth Bernal Flores pours a cup of milk for her 10-year-old son, Oscar.

(Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

As she cleans up breakfast, Flores notices that Khenan hasn’t finished his milk. Each drop is vital, and she calls him back to finish.

Despite her financial pressures, Flores is slowly setting money aside toward a small cafe specializing in the food of El Salvador, where she was raised. The 27-year-old’s goal is to start the business before she turns 30 and to become independent of public benefits.

“I don’t want to feel like people say I came here so the government can support me,” says Flores. “I would feel better because I wouldn’t be a burden.”

 

Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: tduggan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @taraduggan





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