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Weaving a Stronger Safety Net

Local governments rarely look to independent restaurants to solve community hunger. Jacob Bindman is making the connection with the SF New Deal.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

At just 9 years old, Jacob Bindman got his first food job: volunteering for CUESA, the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, a San Francisco nonprofit that runs the city’s famed Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The knives and the fire of the cooking demos drew him in, but it was the connection to the bigger food system and the people who create it that kept him in the food and restaurant world.

Now 23, Bindman is the director of service operations for SF New Deal, a nonprofit he co-founded with his friend and mentor Lenore Estrada in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the city shuttered restaurants last spring, the pair saw an opportunity to support those businesses with cash while providing good food to community members in need. They secured a million-dollar pledge from a tech CEO — a friend of Estrada’s who was looking for a way to aid small businesses — and quickly got to work, paying restaurants to make meals and forging partnerships with local activists, organizers, and groups to distribute the food. One year into SF New Deal’s effort, Bindman now leads a team of more than 20 people working on multiple feeding programs. And he has also been working with the city of San Francisco to encourage local government officials to contract with small businesses instead of huge corporations.

Eater: How are you making change in the food world?

Jacob Bindman: One of the things I’ve been really excited about with SF New Deal is thinking about how sustainability extends beyond the very literal agricultural meaning — to understand what the sustainability of food systems at large looks like as it relates to fair wages, worker practices, and distribution channels. And I think a huge portion of what sustainability looks like has to do with the extent to which communities are in partnership to support one another. Everyone needs to eat and engage in their community.

SF New Deal thrives on serving as a facilitator and mediator for people who touch our food systems in not necessarily the most obvious ways. We’re working with farmers and providers, but we’re also working with the city of San Francisco, with restaurants that make these meals, and with members of our community who eat these meals. If we are going to build a sustainable system, it can’t look like what’s been happening. And a lot of the change that I’m excited to be a part of is change that really centers and gives voice to the people who are closest to the system, either because they are the individual essential workers who are going in every day and doing this work or because they rely on food support from the government, and the services they have been getting are lackluster.

How did you get started in the Bay Area food scene?

I grew up in San Francisco and started going to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as a very young kid with my parents, and I started volunteering with CUESA. What was so surprising to me as a kid, and even more so in retrospect, is how much the Ferry Building — and CUESA in particular — really serves as an intersection of so many food communities in the Bay Area. I was welcomed into this space really early on and volunteered with CUESA through high school until going to college. Through the work I was doing at CUESA, I got to know a bunch of different chefs, restaurateurs, and farmers and spent most of my summers growing up working in those kitchens. Restaurant kitchens were a space where I felt engaged and able to participate in a food system that is driven by working to be sustainable and provide great service. But also, day-to-day, there’s a pace that I found quite fun.

What are you most passionate about with your work?

The reality is that food insecurity is something that has so long existed in San Francisco that by virtue of growing up here you just see it and are thinking about it all the time. There are all these people on the street and people who so visibly have not received the resources and support they need from the city. And when starting SF New Deal, that kick-started an opportunity to say, “How can we use this as a chance to provide some immediate relief during a time of acute pressures on individuals who need food support?” But also, from the get-go, we acknowledged that we weren’t solving a new problem; the people who were hardest hit have been deeply impacted for decades.

Community feeding is working to make sure that the basic needs of members of our community are met. Doing that means understanding holistically who the individuals are who are receiving services. And, by virtue of what food represents, overwhelmingly the people we serve and the people who are food insecure in San Francisco have received an insufficient level of support in a whole host of areas; they might also be housing insecure or unemployed or need mental or physical health services. So why I’m excited about working in a space that touches community feeding is that it really serves as a mechanism to touch so many important and vital things that dictate what a thriving city should look like.

In San Francisco, and in cities everywhere, the challenges we’re working to address have so long persisted that it can feel as though they cannot be solved. What I find inspiring is the simplicity of our model and the extent to which all it mandates is that community members show up for one another. And so many different people have come together to make this project work. Truly, it’s a collaborative effort: It’s community leaders, it’s the city of San Francisco, it’s our meal recipients, it’s the restaurants. It is so inspiring to see all these individuals come together.

A man loads a crate into the trunk of a car

The second piece I find really exciting is thinking about how the government and small businesses engage with one another. We have really been focused on community feeding and making small businesses eligible to receive city, state, and federally funded contracts, which is something that is incredibly challenging to do. Usually small businesses are completely cut out of these opportunities, and the scale of these opportunities is just so significant. It’s really disheartening the extent to which Sysco and Aramark are set up to receive these contracts and really no one else. I’m inspired by the extent to which the small businesses we work with have demonstrated that they’re capable of meeting the needs of a city contract and providing those services. That’s a piece I really hope will last beyond COVID, the extent to which we see small businesses as a tool by which cities can meet the needs of their community.

What do you hope to accomplish in this next year?

A big goal going into this coming year is working in our advocacy but also in our direct service to not let the vaccine rollout and the optics of opening back up overshadow the reality that the people who have been most impacted by this past year are going to continue to have a lot of challenges for years to come. We recently did a survey of over 185 participating restaurants, and overwhelmingly, restaurants are estimating it’s going to take them between a year and a half to two years to recover financially. For individuals who have been experiencing food insecurity for the past decade, a widespread vaccine rollout does not shift that reality. For the communities we serve, we really want to provide sustained support through recovery, acknowledging that recovery is going to be a lengthy process.

How can readers support your work?

Supporting our work means supporting the work of individuals and groups addressing food insecurity and the challenges faced by small businesses at large. To support the work of SF New Deal directly, you can donate on our website, I think what’s also incredibly important is to acknowledge the advocacy level that each individual has at their localized level; individuals should feel encouraged and empowered to reach out to their local politicians and ask them what they are doing to support small businesses and support members of their community who are food insecure. One of the things that has been really eye-opening for me in this past year is the extent to which there are individuals in every single neighborhood in San Francisco experiencing food insecurity; there’s a false perception that there are certain neighborhoods in which challenges don’t exist and all the challenges exist in 10 square blocks. That is not the reality. So I would encourage individuals to acknowledge the challenges in their neighborhoods and demand of themselves, their politicians, and their community to find ways to meet those needs and make sure people receive the fundamental and core human support they need.

Michelle K. Min is a food photographer based in San Francisco.


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