Free Food Philo: A Coming Home

by Caryn Roth and Caroline Griggs

When the pandemic hit San Francisco in March 2020, we closed the doors to our free restaurant. In the uncertainty of the world, we felt lost and we wondered how we would find our way back to the surface. We were leaving behind the people we fed and the vision of Love to Table that we knew. The gravity of the situation hit us deeply, our hearts ached with loss and fear of what the future would hold. For more than six months, we had regularly served food from Z Zoul, a small yet quaint restaurant on Eddy St. in the Tenderloin, and we were ramping up to weekly service. We had formed deep friendships with the restaurant owner and local homeless who often visited our location. Stopping our sit-down meals not only left us wondering how to serve, but also brought a halt to all of our day-to-day operations.

We paused inside the slowness and with a desire to, “fill what is empty, and empty what is full.” We looked around, waited, and with patience, the next action was revealed to us. One day, we woke up with the thought, “What if we serve our local community? Those closest to us?” So, we delivered bread, eggs, and other items to our neighbors, we explored, we got curious, we made friends, and they answered.

As we paid closer attention to those near us, our community began to reveal itself to us. We discovered there was indeed a lot of need inside our neighborhood. It looked different than what we were used to. We were no longer witnessing the homeless on crowded streets, instead, the needs of Ukiah and Philo hid themselves amongst the bridges and streets of the neighborhood. It felt as if they were asking us, “Will you come and meet us, find us, join us?”

Slowly, we started to find out where people stayed. We noticed elderly and sick people, often without family to care for them, finding themselves in need of nourishing food and care.

We had been traveling five hours round trip to serve the homeless in San Francisco, completely missing our neighborhood friends, who were also in need. COVID brought us home, literally, asking us to create and serve closer to our hearts, not only internally, but externally. With that, Love to Table started a new initiative – Free Food Philo – with the idea of liberating ideas around food and bringing Love to Table back to its essence.

Letting go of our San Francisco services left us with an emptiness that our local community helped us begin to fill. The shutting down of one form of service to the homeless, slowly, and with time, allowed us to step into a deeper relationship with our mission and the local community. Free Food represents a simpler, more direct connection between us and the food we serve.

After the establishment of Free Food, new partnerships abounded in our local community. Now, on a weekly basis we hand deliver food on the streets, making our meals using local donated ingredients and extras from our farm. We create hearty, home-cooked meals to express our gratitude and love.

When searching for people on the streets, the challenge asks us to remember qualities of a person on a deeper level. We begin to think like them, learn from them, in hopes of discovering where they will be when we are delivering the food. A thirst for connection begins to arise in our bodies as we eagerly scour the streets for our friends. This is our opportunity to re-connect and visit, as well as a chance to bask in their wisdom, gratitude, honesty, and deep love for experiences.

When we cook, we think about Thomas at the shelter who helped us distribute the meals and Leah, who offered her artwork as a thank you for the food, and Barbara down the street, who was so grateful for a meal dropped off when she was sick.

There’s a different feeling now when we cook the meals, a sense of effortless joy.

For one meal we were inspired to create fresh cooked sandwiches from homemade bread and donated mushrooms. Inside of the preparation, we paused. We were thinking about one kid in Juvenile Hall who doesn’t like mushrooms. A soft smile crossed our faces, as we began packing a special meal, just for him. In these moments, we feel our hearts expand to hold every one of these people as individuals, not as a group of need, but as individuals that each in their own way keep us and our nonprofit alive, joyful, and grateful.

Words of kindness come in, from generous, open, receptive hearts. Our patrons meet us with a gratitude that reminds us why we do this.

“Thank you for the meals. Really good food. I would super appreciate it if I could, when I’m here, receive this compassionate gift. I’m on Food Bank and prayers for a few months.” – Philo meal recipient

“People are so happy. I surprised the Post Office ladies. Thanked them for their service. Being here every day. Tears in their eyes.” – Philo delivery volunteer

“I can’t tell you what a wonderful treat it was to have my dinner delivered! Much appreciated and thanks to the Love Family.” – Philo meal recipient

We’re now making plans for our sit down meals in Philo and Ukiah. With a new level of connection, we return to our original vision of a sit-down restaurant. We simply respond to the needs of those around us. It is the connection that feeds the whole system – our community, partners, and of course patrons. We come together to pour out our love and abundance, and to be moved and touched by our mutual humanity.