Serving Our Community’s Navigation Centers
November 9, 2022Jim Oswald

Homelessness is at a critical state in San Francisco. According to the 2019 Point-in-Time Count, there are over 8,000 unhoused individuals—including over 5,000 living unsheltered—on any given night.

In response, the city developed Navigation Centers. First opened in March 2015, the Centers serve San Francisco’s highly vulnerable and long-term unhoused neighbors who are often fearful of accessing traditional shelter and services. People aged 18+ receive meals, shelter, individualized services, and more. There are currently 10 centers that vary in size; some are smaller, and one serves about 250.

The Centers serve a variety of unhoused people. They provide wraparound services like counseling and beds. Many are dealing with addiction issues; some were recently unhoused because of the pandemic. One Navigation Center is focused on the LGBTQ+ community.

“Navigation Centers, were intended to be different to the traditional shelter system,” said Isabel Flores, Senior Manager of Home-Delivered Meals Client Waitlist & Communications, who also oversees the Navigation Center program. “The traditional shelter system at least here in San Francisco—was generally (either) male or female.” She explained that this added a feeling to some that they were not welcome.

“You could not bring your partner, pets, or even your personal stuff so, a lot of people chose to stay on the streets,” she said.

All People Deserve a Decent, Nutritious Meal

How do you feed all of those people every day? Meals on Wheels San Francisco (MOWSF) accepted the challenge by partnering with the City to serve healthy, nutritious meals to unhoused people at the Navigation Centers.

The concept worked well that first year, and Meals on Wheels San Francisco came aboard a year later to test a meal delivery solution at two of the program’s centers in August 2016. In those early days, MOWSF provided about 7,000 meals a month.

As of September 2022, that number has grown to 37,000 meals monthly.

As the work expanded, so did the menu. Initially, the program provided “just entrees with supplemental milk and juice,” said Phil Duarte, Director of MOWSF’s Home-Delivered Meals program. “Then we moved to provide both the dinner entrees and brunch.”

Meals on Wheels is the primary food source for the city-wide program. But the various Navigation Centers also supplement the meals through their own food budgets, buying other things like coffee, snacks, treats, and condiments.

Day In, Day Out

It is quite the operation!

Because the number of people each Navigation Center serves fluctuates, the MOWSF team must communicate with them every week to confirm their order. Cleunir De Araujo, Home-Delivered Meals manager says his email “inbox just explodes on Wednesdays.”

“We collect orders every Wednesday and give them to the kitchen every Thursday morning,” said Cleunir.

Drivers are also assigned to deliver the meals daily, Monday through Friday. Some sites get deliveries several times a week depending on how big they are and how much cold storage space they have. And these are mass deliveries. So, it’s also a lot for drivers to manage.

Deliveries are “an entire truckload full or two depending on the size of the site; they have to go twice sometimes to offload 1,000 meals at a time,” Isabel added.

MOWSF’s kitchen provides a wide variety of meals for the Navigation Centers. A recent menu listing included: Salmon with Japanese Curry, Sausage Omelet with Sweet Potato and Corn, and Chicken Tamale with Spanish Rice are some of the meals. MOWSF also provides vegetarian options like Stuffed Shells with Pesto, Spinach & Rainbow Carrots, and Southwest Chili.

To date, there are 33 different types of meals, inlcuding vegetarian options, in the two-week cycle. This menu variety is only possible thanks to the food storage capacity and industrial kitchen equipment we now have at our new kitchen which opened in November of 2020.

Most importantly, Meals on Wheels San Francisco provides a well-balanced, nourishing meal for people experiencing a difficult time in their lives.

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