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San Francisco opens first free grocery store

By KENNETH SCHRUPP | THE CENTER SQUARE

The first free grocery store was opened in San Francisco at a cost of $5.5 million. Residents who are eligible can show an eligibility card, put their desired products in their shopping cart, keep track of the goods leaving the store at the checkout and leave the store without paying.

The Bayview-Hunters Point facility is designed to be an alternative to grocery distribution and replicate the supermarket experience in an area where many grocery stores have opened but few remain due to high crime rates.

The 4,000-square-foot District 10 Market is the first of San Francisco's “food empowerment” markets funded by the San Francisco Human Services Agency. Eligible individuals receive a Costo-like benefit card that allows them to use the facility once a month. Eligibility is limited to those who live in one of three zip codes, have documented public assistance, have dependents under the age of 25 or a recognized foodborne illness, and are referred by one of the 11 community organizations in the market's referral network.

Geoffrea Morris, who pushed for San Francisco's 2021 Food Empowerment Market legislation while serving as a county supervisor and is a senior adviser for the District 10 Market, explains that the program is intended to supplement food stamps that run out toward the end of the month, especially with rising food costs due to inflation.

“This is an additional source of food. Food stamps should be the primary source. This is an additional source, especially near the end of the month when families are particularly suffering from inflation,” Morris told The Center Square.

The facility is designed to replicate the supermarket shopping experience as closely as possible. Customers' items are weighed and scanned at the checkout to keep track of inventory and manage supply chains. District 10 Market, which is located on a Grant of $5.5 million of San Francisco, uses taxpayer dollars to purchase high-quality fresh produce from the Rodriguez Brothers Ranch in Watsonville and relies largely on donations from other grocery stores for its non-perishable products and toiletries.

“If we didn’t tell you it was free, you would think you had to pay,” Morris said.

Morris also explained how District 10 Market's referral process is designed to ensure the use of comprehensive services.

“If you are food insecure, you have other problems as well and you need to take advantage of the services the city has put in place to improve your life and the lives of your children,” Morris said.

District 10 is one of the poorest areas of San Francisco and is home to some of the city's largest public housing projects. Due to high crime rates, grocery stores struggle to survive in this neighborhood despite its high population.

“Many chains have come and gone in the church. Many chains have come and gone in my lifetime,” Morris recalls.

The Bayview-Hunters Point community has a population of 40,495 and is home to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-designated “food desert,” with low availability of fresh food and a high property crime rate in the area. In the first six months of 2019, 143 robberies, 129 assaults, 195 burglaries, 308 auto thefts and 889 larcenies were reported in the area. Those numbers largely dropped in the first six months of 2024, when 78 robberies, 120 assaults, 174 burglaries, 353 auto thefts and 431 larcenies were reported. However, business organizations say the apparent drop in crime, as reported in San Francisco and much of California, is due to fewer crime reports, not less actual crime.

“We know that cases are underreported. Since Proposition 47 passed, murders, rapes and robberies have increased by more than 20%. The same is true for auto thefts, which have increased by 19.8% since Proposition 47 passed,” Matt Ross, communications director for Californians Against Retail & Residential Theft, told The Center Square. “The only significant decrease is in burglaries, which are down 30%. So either California is doing an amazing job of reducing burglaries while all other crime statistics are up, or it is underreported.”

If the Bayview-Hunters Point facility meets the city's goals, the city plans to open additional facilities in other low-income neighborhoods.

Anna Harden

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