Pastor Ralph Olmos wasn’t worried about city permits when he opened his food stand—Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry—at the corner of E. Julian and 17th streets in San Jose. Olmos was worried about people going hungry.
He knew parents were choosing to feed their children, while they went without. He knew covering rent, utilities and medication came first because those were fixed costs. Food budgets weren’t. He just wanted to offer a little hope and help to the most vulnerable by providing essentials—milk, cheese, bread and fresh fruits and vegetables.
At his current location he garnered support from nonprofits like Hunger at Home, Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen, Second Harvest Food Bank and Martha’s Kitchen. Even Levi’s Stadium, Safeway and Lunardi’s chipped in. Clearly he wasn’t trying to evade the city.
So after a year, Olmos was flabbergasted when San Jose slapped him with a special use permit requirement to the tune of up to $15,500 and a deadline of Feb. 14. No Valentine’s Day love here.
He asked the city if it would waive the fees. He didn’t have the money. The sum was astronomical for his small operation, which somehow managed to help give away healthy free food to more than 1,000 people six days a week.
City officials said this is the cost of doing business in San Jose. No exceptions. His food stand was not in compliance. He needed to pay for that special permit so the city could do an environmental and planning review, public notification, outreach and a public hearing. San Jose also needed to address complaints by neighbors about blocked driveways and other parking issues.
OK, fair enough about the neighbors, but an environmental and planning review? This is not a brownfield contamination site with lead or toxins in the soil. What is there to plan? We are talking about a farmer’s market food stand.
In case the city lost the memo, Santa Clara County is still in the throes of a pandemic, and the food insecurity numbers in the region are staggering. People are hungry and scared. They have lost their jobs or are barely making ends meet. Some have lost their homes to evictions, while others are disabled or seniors on meager retirement incomes. All are struggling to survive.
In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, 500,000 people rely on Second Harvest for their groceries, according to the food bank. That’s up from 250,000 pre-pandemic. Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen is feeding 1.5 million people annually in these counties since the pandemic. Triple the mouths fed since COVID-19 struck the region. A number that equates to more than half the population in Santa Clara County.
One in three people in Santa Clara County are suffering from food insecurity, while one in four people go to bed hungry every night, according to Loaves & Fishes. A travesty in a county ranked one of the wealthiest in the nation.
Fortunately, human kindness still exists. Even if the city is blind, the community has not lost its compassion. When San José Spotlight wrote about the potential closure of the food pantry, people stepped up with big hearts and donated to a GoFundMe campaign. To date, Lighthouse Ministries has raised more than $18,000 to cover the permit costs. But that doesn’t guarantee the city will let Olmos stay at his current location after the public outreach, planning and environmental reviews have been completed.
With epic levels of hunger and homelessness in San Jose, why is it so difficult for the city to find a humane way to work with one pastor trying to help those with nowhere else to turn?
Downtown has always been a food desert for residents and the homeless alike. For a brief time, Zanotto’s and Safeway tried to exist in the city’s core, but failed. And about a decade ago Loaves & Fishes served meals to our most in need at a downtown church, until the city pushed them out. Neighbors complained about homeless residents lining up for food. I was on the nonprofit’s board at the time and saw fear when people learned of the news. There would be nowhere nearby to get a nutritious hot meal. Many were families with children.
So I challenge the city to think outside the box. Instead of burying Pastor Olmos in paperwork and gouging him with permit fees, how about some good old-fashioned conversation to resolve the situation? How about showing some goodwill? Come up with a feasible solution that helps the hungry and the community at large. It’s not complicated.
Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. She has more than 20 years of experience in Silicon Valley journalism, including roles as the editor for the Silicon Valley Business Journal and as a reporter and editor with the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. Follow Moryt at @morytmilo on Twitter and catch up on her monthly editorials here.