Three-Dollar Chicken: The Ethical Dilemma of the Food Pantry Black Market

"How much? How much?" asks a reporter in a checkered button-down and a pair of Air Jordans. He's pointing at a box of Rice Krispies cereal.

The elderly Chinese woman in the blue fleece picks up a plastic bag with two cereal boxes and says, holding up three fingers, "Three dollars! Three dollars!" She stands in a row beside eight other elderly Chinese women, behind a bus stop on Market Street near the corner of Seventh. All of them have paper bags and plastic bags and metal carts at their feet, all filled with food: Juice cartons, bags of coffee, packaged pretzel bites, and a bunch of other items.

"Nah, I don't need two. Just one. One dollar? One dollar?" counters the reporter. But the woman pushes the bag into his chest. The woman next to her in a green visor, sensing the opportunity, steps between the bartering pair holding a single box of cereal. "One dollar! One dollar!" she says.

The reporter furrows his brow, in deep thought. "You got that in chocolate?" he asks.

The underground food bazaar is in full swing. It's 1 p.m. and the lunchtime crowd bustles by. Several people stop to peruse the selection. No better food deal in the city. It's cheap because the women got most of the goods at food pantries around the city. So a dollar for a box of cereal is a dollar of profit.

The people who run the food pantries are certainly aware of this. While the majority of the tens of thousands of San Franciscans who receive the charitable goods take the food straight to their refrigerators, cupboards, and dining tables, there are others who instead take the food to Market Street. This creates a complex ethical dilemma, of course. On one hand, the sellers are exploiting the charity to turn a profit. But, then again, the sellers who benefit from this underground market, low-income immigrants who barely speak English, are the exact demographic the pantries are trying to help.

"It's a question for people to ask themselves about what they think a gift means," says Sara Miles, a spokesperson for St. Gregory's food pantry service. "If I gave you a gift, is it yours to do with what you want?"

The food pantries' range of sentiments illustrates the complexities of the dilemma. As Amy Jones, a spokesperson for Fill Up America, says, "All we can do on our end is try to do the most good we can for people in San Francisco. And if they're choosing to sell the food for whatever reason, that's between them and their conscience." Blaine Johnson, of San Francisco Food Bank, is less ambivalent. "The majority of our donations come from individual people. Their intention is that we feed people, not that we enable folks to have a side business to resell our food."

Miles, however, appreciates the impulses that created the underground charity food market. "It's not as if the reason people are hungry is because the food bank doesn't have enough food," she says. "I don't think that this is a problem. I think the problem is that it's impossible for poor people to live in San Francisco."

Some food pantries give out fliers discouraging the reselling of the goods. Some try to identify the offenders, warning them to stop before they are prohibited from the handouts. But the market lives on.

And as the reporter turns down the $1 cereal, he immediately encounters more offers. "Chicken!" says a woman in a white jacket, pointing to a whole, raw chicken wrapped in plastic at her feet.

"Chicken?" says the man. "How old? How old? Week old?"

"No, no," the woman replies. "This morning! This morning!"

"So it's been laying out here in the sun all day?"

The woman chuckles. "Three dollars."

A police officer on a bike rolls past, carefully maneuvering around the crowd of buyers before accelerating up the sidewalk. He barely glances at the scene. What the women are doing is definitely illegal – peddling without a permit, a violation of municipal code 869. And when police dole out citations to them, the officers confiscate the goods and re-donate them to the pantries. But enforcement, says SFPD officer Albie Esparza, is based on complaints, which are rare and usually stem from nearby business owners. "If there's no calls for service," he says, "we respond to more serious crimes in progress."

The underground food bazaar, after all, operates on a block littered with peddlers without a permit. This is Mid-Market, home to the city's vibrant outlaw bazaar. A dozen feet from the women, a man hawks old VHS tapes and beat-up ball caps on a picnic blanket. An older woman sells bootlegged DVDs. A middle-aged man offers discounted jewelry. Another man sells bus transfer passes. Another, cigarettes. And then there's the pack of young men at the corner of Market and Jones Street slanging weed. The women with the bags of food are hustlers on a block full of hustlers. Capitalists seizing the chance to improve their lot.

After the reporter passes on the chicken, the woman in the green visor waves him over. She pulls from her bag a bottle of Sierra Nevada beer. The reporter's eyes, naturally, widen, and he smiles. Food pantries don't serve beer. "Two dollars!" says the woman. The reporter peeks in her bag and sees a second bottle. "Two dollars for both!" he says. "Two fifty," the woman counters. And he nods.

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Lisa Quail
Lisa Quail

Yep, all the time on Market and Seventh. Its pretty sad that people who really need it don't get it, and then there are those who get it and sell it. I think those folks selling on Market and Seventh, ought to be fined and not be able to get food from the food bank for 6 months for the 1st offense, 12 months for the 2nd offense, and for the 3rd offense, they should not be able to get anything for life.

awayneramsey topcommenter

Several years ago, some of us were introduced to two legal rules that apply to gifts. Simply stated, the giver decides the use of conditional gifts and the receiver decides the use of unconditional gifts. The elderly Asian ladies who congregate near 7th and Market Streets to sell gifted goods are not capitalists. They are entrepreneurs, and one can experience this sort of thing in other parts of the world, including Mexico and India, etc. where poverty is the rule and not the exception.


This kind of black market activity is infuriating on many levels.   We know families that are hungry but they can't get to a Food Pantry, its sickening to hear about this kind of behavior. The typical person that goes to a Food Bank is there because they are hungry.  We know because in the past our family needed and received assistance, but now consider it a privilege to give back to others that need a hand up.

Any individual that takes more food than they need and sells it, is no better than a thug.  

Sandy Yagi
Sandy Yagi

I quit donating money to the SF Food Bank and give to other charities because of what this article points out

Dallas DeBurger
Dallas DeBurger

I'm just waiting for the time that whatever companies or organizations donate this food to the pantries cut them off because of this. Wasn't it around thanksgiving last year that food banks were soliciting donations for turkeys because they did not have enough? I believe it was because federal funding got cut.

Dallas DeBurger
Dallas DeBurger

Yes...all the time around market and 7th street. They know its wrong and still do it...the food banks are also aware and still allow it. It's stealing plain and simple and causing someone else that may really need it to go without.

Chris Hicks
Chris Hicks

Who the fuck are you to be mad about immigrant Chinese ladies trying to survive?

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