Food Insecurity a Major Issue in Chinatown SROs

New COVID-19 response programs to help low income seniors and families need volunteers.

At the start of shelter-in-place, Malcolm Yeung knew a storm was coming for Chinatown SROs, where shared kitchen and bathroom spaces make social distancing nearly impossible. 

“Cooking in communal kitchens means you’re essentially cooking with 60 to 80 of your neighbors,” Yeung says, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Chinatown CDC operates over 3,000 affordable housing SRO units, and many of its residents are low-income immigrant seniors and families. 

Yeung started hearing from families about a ramp-up in kitchen use. Naturally, people weren’t eating out anymore, as the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to close and encouraged residents to stay indoors.

“It was leading to tensions around social distancing while cooking,” Yeung says. 

That’s why the Chinatown CDC started food delivery and takeout programs for Chinatown SRO residents. One program, intended for seniors, delivers hot meals door to door. The other allows families to pick up takeout from New Asia, where tables form barricades around the restaurant’s perimeters to reinforce social distancing. Lines are marked with tape so participants stand six feet apart while waiting for their meals. About 1,200 to 1,500 meals are delivered or picked up each day.

A volunteer preps takeout at New Asia. Photo courtesy of Suosdey Penn.

All these efforts are meant to minimize kitchen use in SROs, but they rely on volunteers. While 100 people have signed up to package and deliver food, Yeung says that more are needed

“Our aspiration is to have no staff participate two days a week in the program, just to try to keep people off site as much as possible,” Yeung says. Ideally, people would only need to volunteer once a week. But in reality, the frequency has been closer to three times a week. 

“In the first seven days, I went five of the seven,” Jason Chommanard, a program assistant at Chinatown CDC, says. “I’ve since scaled back.”

Volunteers are especially needed for food delivery. All volunteers are screened for their potential to have or have caught COVID-19 before starting, and are equipped with protective gear like surgical face masks.

Stoves in a communal kitchen in a Chinatown SRO. Photo courtesy of Suosdey Penn.

Programs like this will cost at least $350,000 a month to feed just the families, the SF Examiner reported. Chinatown CDC is accepting donations, which will go towards ensuring food security for some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable populations — low-income immigrant seniors and families who are finding quarantining safely difficult given the circumstances. 

Yeung compares a typical SRO room to half the size of a college dorm room — there’s about 80 square feet of space, and it’s sometimes shared with multiple people. 

“No SROs in Chinatown have individual bathrooms. A handful have sinks. Most floors will share a bathroom and a kitchen,” Yeung says. “Much of the essentials of living have to happen in shared facilities. There’s little to no sense of privacy, which makes sheltering in place really challenging.”

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. Email her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

A room in a Chinatown SRO. Photo courtesy of Suosdey Penn.
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