“Are you hungry?” I ask a couple holding a chihuahua under Highway 101. “Do you want a burrito?”
They nod, smiling, and I pull out two heavy warm burritos from my bike’s panniers. I hand them over, make a little small talk, then cruise down to the next group of tents nestled under the “Hairball,” a maze of overpasses, on-ramps, and sidewalks where Cesar Chavez Street crosses under the freeway.
Such is the delivery process for the San Francisco Burrito Project, a community effort that draws together dozens of volunteers one night each month to cook, assemble, and deliver 400 vegan burritos to those living on the streets of San Francisco.
Founder Jimmy Ryan launched the Burrito Project last May, after volunteering at a similar venture in Los Angeles. While helping out at Martin de Porres’ soup kitchen in Potrero Hill, he proposed the idea of a local branch, and they donated their commercial kitchen for the cause. With a few recruits to help with assembly and delivery, the project was born. Nearly one year later, it’s going strong.
In late March, I joined up with a friend who’d been volunteering for several months, intrigued by her commitment. Biking around the city for a few hours at sunset delivering hot meals sounded fun and rewarding, and the cause was one I could get behind.
The kitchen at Martin de Porres was already hopping when I arrived at 5:30 p.m. A group of burrito-makers worked rapidly along a metal table, with each food prep volunteer assigned a station: tortilla warming, tortilla passing, rice, beans, salsa, burrito rolling, foil wrapping, or counting. Once a burrito has worked its way down the line, it’s stacked in a cardboard box, ready for distribution.
(Courtesy Burrito Project)
I was given a brief tour of the space by organizer Eric Tuvel, who offered me a burrito — hungry volunteers can help themselves — and showed me a map of the city with known homeless encampments highlighted in yellow. Once I’d found a delivery team (an old friend and a new one), we were given the lowdown on how to distribute meals safely and respectfully.
As an icebreaker, volunteers are encouraged to ask the simple question, “Are you hungry?” when they come across someone who may be living on the streets. Some people will say no. That’s fine; you just move on. Others may ask for more than one burrito, perhaps for other people in the camp who aren’t home at the moment. It’s fine to offer up a few extra. The guideline is to respect people’s privacy, and not take photos.
I’d been warned that the burritos were heavy, so I outfitted my bike with one large rear pannier and a randonneur bag on my front rack. I counted out 18 of the foil-wrapped meals and had room for more — but when I lifted my pannier, it weighed as much as a small child, so I stopped there. Rolling out from Martin de Porres onto a street with bad pavement and then up a slight hill, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it the mile-and-a-half to the Hairball. But once we got rolling, the momentum and the company made the struggle to keep my pedals moving a little less painful.
Within four blocks, the Burrito Project veteran on our delivery team stopped at a few tents lined neatly along a Folsom Street sidewalk, to talk to an eloquent and clean-cut man who was tidying up around his tent. He thanked us and we rolled out, hitting a few more camps before reaching the Hairball, which was packed with people who had tents, bikes, shopping carts, and makeshift kitchens set up underneath the freeway. A couple of beautiful pitbulls ran loose in a fenced-in field. While trepidatious at first about our reasons for being there, most people smiled and relaxed when we told them we were just handing out burritos.
“I’ve been working all day,” one middle-aged man said, taking one. “Look.” He held up his hands, which were black with grease, as if to prove to me that he deserved a meal.
Leaving the Hairball, we biked along Cesar Chavez Street toward the Dogpatch. This stretch of the city is home to lumber yards, warehouses, and lots and lots of glass on the side of the road. I was glad I’d pumped up my tires, but wished I’d brought a flat-repair kit just in case.
Here, people living on the streets were harder to find. One group set up on the side of the road pointed us in the direction of another camp.
“Just two blocks down there,” a man said, but two blocks away was nothing more than an old asphalt road turning to dirt, with a parking lot at the end. The wind picked up, and as we were peering down the road, a piece of fabric fluttered, hinting at a sign of life. Our tires bumped on the gravel as we rolled down to check it out, and a man appeared out of a camp hidden by boards. “Nice bikes!” he said, as we handed him dinner.
It took our little group of three an hour-and-a-half and nine miles of biking to deliver more than 50 burritos. And while there was definitely some patting myself on the back for all the hard work I’d done, that feeling was eclipsed by the great people I’d met that evening. I was hooked. And from what Tuvel tells me, that sentiment isn’t uncommon.
“We’ve had a positive response from the community, and many of our volunteers return each month and bring friends, family, and coworkers,” he says. “The simplicity of the project seems to speak for itself, and it’s really helped in getting people excited about it.”
The success of the Burrito Project inspired the organizers to expand, though there are a few different ideas for direction.
“It could involve having more than one event a month, handing out things like toothpaste and soap, or working with local shelters or other service providers to deliver food directly to their guests,” Tuvel says. “This first year has been really great, and we’ve received amazing support from Martin de Porres, our volunteers, and other community partners.
“Right now, we want to establish a sustainable funding stream for our monthly event,” he adds, “and then start to plan for how we can grow and make a larger impact.”