Noe Valley Voice October 1998

No More Free Food at Holiness Temple

By Tim Kelley

Free food distribution has ended at the former Holiness Temple in Christ -- now renamed The Church at San Francisco -- the royal-blue Pentecostal church at Church and 28th streets.

Pastor Joesiah Bell said his agreement with the San Francisco Food Bank, the organization from which the church had been purchasing groceries for distribution, was terminated this summer.

Bell said the split stemmed from a disagreement over "intrusive" site inspections by the Food Bank. He claimed that inspections of the church dramatically increased after he complained about racial discrimination by grocery distributors at the organization's Potrero Hill warehouse.

Gretta Wark, director of development for the Food Bank, confirmed that her organization had severed its relationship with the church in July. Wark said the Food Bank's inspections had revealed that people lining up for groceries at the Wednesday and Saturday distributions had been effectively required to hear a religious message prior to receiving food. She also said her records showed there were discrepancies between the amount of food purchased by the church and the amount distributed at regular posted hours.

As for Bell's discrimination claims, Wark said, "Hunger doesn't discriminate, and we don't discriminate either."

Bell admitted that his church usually scheduled prayer sessions right before food distribution times, but he insisted that participation was voluntary.

As for the accounting discrepancies, the pastor said his church had been handing out groceries to other religious and social organizations around the city, as well as to the needy at the church.

Although they may have been in violation of their agreement with the Food Bank, he said, "As a church, we have an obligation to serve the entire community."

He also declined to document every transaction, saying, "They're not going to tell me who to give food to. We serve illegal immigrants and other people who don't want to give their names."

But Wark said the Food Bank must ensure that the groceries -- which are donated by major food manufacturers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other sources -- are actually reaching people in need. Each client organization, she explained, must account for how, when, and to whom they give their food.

"We don't terminate an agency lightly," Wark said. "We've only done it about three times in the last four or five years."