San Jose is forcing a popular food pantry to pay thousands of dollars for a special permit or stop feeding Silicon Valley’s hungriest residents.
The Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry, located at E. Julian and 17th streets near Lighthouse Church, feeds more than 1,000 people a day, six days a week. It halted operations for several days last week after receiving a notice from the city claiming it’s not compliant with zoning rules. The city demanded the food pantry cough up $15,500 for a special use permit.
City spokeswomen Carolina Camarena, Demetria Machado and Cheryl Wessling were unavailable for comment.
Pastor Ralph Olmos was shocked when the city told him to close shop. On Jan. 8, he shut down the farmer’s market-style food distribution stand serving milk, cheese, bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, turning away families in need.
“It caused an uproar,” he said.
Olmos said the city told him last week that it had sent the wrong paperwork regarding zoning and reinstated the food distribution center. But soon after, the city sent another notice requiring the food pantry to obtain a special use permit or close by Feb. 14. Olmos said the food pantry doesn’t have that kind of money and is just trying to serve the community. The fees and permit application are due April 25.
“I won’t be able to pay that,” Olmos told San José Spotlight. “When Feb. 14 comes, I think I’m going to have to shut down again.”
People are especially relying on the food pantry while out of work during the COVID pandemic, Olmos added. He asked the city to waive the fees and launched a GoFundMe campaign. To date the campaign has raised $2,850.
The pantry serves families, seniors, disabled and homeless people. It operates daily from noon to 5 p.m., and volunteers bring food to homeless camps in the evening. Olmos said families often thank him for bringing the food distribution site into the community, a needed bridge between difficult-to-reach food pantries located further away.
Diana Rodriguez, who is unemployed, said the food pantry allows her to get fresh vegetables that are essential to her health because she’s diabetic.
“Sometimes there’s no money as we have to pay for utilities and medicine,” she said. “A lot of people need help and are just not making it in Santa Clara County.”
During its closure, Lighthouse distribution center manager Tony Covarrubias wrote on Nextdoor that their “hearts were heavy” to have to stop serving the community.
“So many families, elders and children have shown such a sadness in their hearts because we’re not open to serve 17th Street,” he wrote.
Olmos said people reacted strongly to the post.
“It was unbelievable how much support showed up for us,” he said. “People said it was the only way they could survive.”
Olmos started Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry six years ago from the back of a truck. He later served food to needy residents from a garage and a year ago opened the food stand. Olmos partnered with nonprofits like Hunger at Home, Loaves and Fishes, Second Harvest and Martha’s Kitchen to increase his impact. Levi’s Stadium, Safeway and Lunardi’s also stepped up to help.
Housing advocate Shaunn Cartwright told San José Spotlight the food pantry fills a critical gap in services provided by the city and county. Cartwright said forcing Olmos to obtain a permit makes it seem like the city wants to make feeding homeless people a business.
“To have the city come in and say you need to pay this permit fee is a slap in the face when Lighthouse is filling that need,” she said. “People feeding the unhoused are literally the lifeline keeping people alive and to penalize us with the city trying to make money off that is ridiculous.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]
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