Food bank chief works to stamp out stigma of hunger she remembers

Kaiser Permanente IT volunteers bag oranges, part of the 34 million pounds of food the bank will distribute this year. Photo: Paul Kuroda / Special to The Chronicle

For four decades, Suzan Bateson held her secret close — never talking about how she once relied on food stamps.

Even after she became executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank 18 years ago, she didn’t share that she knows what it’s like to not have money for food — much like the 316,000 people her organization will serve this year.

She didn’t share her story because she still felt the sting of shame.

“It was so embarrassing,” she said of experience. “I was humiliated.”

Now, Bateson is telling her story, describing how she was on her own at 19, in community college, working and unable to make ends meet. She remembers the stares when she pulled the food coupons out of her wallet to pay for groceries.

There should be no shame in seeking help, Bateson said.

“I don’t want anyone else to feel that way,” she said. “One of my biggest jobs right now is to help reduce the stigma of hunger.”

For starters, people in need should realize they are not alone. The food bank serves 1 in 5 Alameda County residents, including those with full-time jobs, families, students, seniors and many others, Bateson said.

This year, the organization will distribute about 34 million pounds of food, she added.

“It’s just expensive here,” she said of the Bay Area. “It’s just driving people to need more resources.”

The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing fund is helping fill that need, contributing $1.3 million last year to Bay Area food banks, and a total of $22 million over the past 33 years, including $4.4 million to Alameda County’s. The fund’s donations to food banks are part of its year-round work to prevent homelessness and hunger in the nine-county Bay Area. All donations go directly to help people in need with administrative costs covered by The Chronicle and the Walter and Evelyn Haas Jr. Fund.

Season of Sharing “is so important for food banks and the other organizations it supports,” Bateson said, adding every dollar donated is leveraged to provide $7 worth of food.

While much of the food is free for those coming to collect and distribute it, some is purchased by the food bank and then sold at cost to the outside organizations that distribute the food in local communities in every corner of the county, she said.

That food includes eggs, chicken and produce — items needed to ensure families receive proper nutrition. The Season of Sharing and other donations help the food bank provide those staples as well as the potatoes, rice and other food.

For Bateson, the monetary donations become more than just numbers on a ledger when she walks through the double doors of the food bank’s office building and onto the warehouse floor.

“It’s like going into the Land of Oz,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like it’s in Technicolor.”

The noisy warehouse floor is a hubbub of activity. Colorful pallets of food are stacked in a large shopping area where churches, shelters, schools and other organizations come to fill trucks and cars with chicken, rice, vegetables, eggs, fruit and other staples.

Behind that, workers unload truck after truck of incoming boxes filled with tuna, juice, fruit, bread, cereal and more, stacking it all on shelves.

In the shopping area on a recent morning, Bob Whalen was filling his cart with food for the 200 to 220 people who visit the Dorothy Day House, a shelter in Berkeley, for meals. The organization also works with those living in homeless encampments, he added, nodding to cans of tuna and other items with pop-top lids, which allow those living on the streets to more easily access the meals.

He has a keen eye for those pop-top lids as well as produce, which is “something that’s very difficult for homeless people to get,” he said.

Nearby, Toni Cook was waiting to load the stacked cases of rice, onions, chicken, sweet potatoes and more, a week’s worth of food she’d need to feed the 50 or 60 people who show up at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oakland for meals each day.

“I love this place, I really do,” Cook said of the food bank as she surveyed the boxes stacked 5 feet tall next to her.

The need is just so great at the “AME Cafe,” she said, telling the story of a young man who showed up one day and ate four plates of food — he was that hungry.

“I just have this thing that no one in America should be hungry,” Cook said. “All they want is human dignity.”

Cook described her church’s efforts and how she insists that there is always “more than enough food” for those who need to fill four plates.

Bateson nodded as Cook talked.

She knows what it’s like to pay rent and other urgent bills and then run out of money for food.

“In Alameda County, people who are on the edge may not see themselves as food insecure,” she said. “And yet, there are thousands of people trying very hard, but not getting ahead, living in fear of not providing for their families.”

She hopes her personal story will help to reduce the stigma of hunger and offer proof that reaching out for help can lead to a more promising future.

“Many of us have been challenged making ends meet and sadly we don’t talk about it enough so it feels shameful,” she said. “I am in my 60s and I’m finally telling my story.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jilltucker

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Help your Bay Area neighbors today by donating to the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund: All administrative expenses are covered by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the San Francisco Chronicle so 100% of your tax-deductible donation helps Bay Area residents in need.