San Jose is forcing Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry to pay thousands of dollars to bring its operation into compliance or stop serving those in need.
The food distribution center, 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 that it wasn’t complying with zoning rules. The city later informed the food pantry it needed to pay $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 cease operations. 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.
Last week, Olmos said the city told the food pantry it had sent the wrong paperwork regarding zoning and reinstated the food distribution center. Then the city issued new paperwork requiring the food pantry to obtain a special use permit or close by Feb. 14 to continue operations. Fees and the permit application would be due April 25, while the process to get the permit would be completed by Oct. 24 Olmos said the food pantry doesn’t have that kind of money and is just trying to serve the community.
“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.”
Olmos said that especially during COVID, many people who are out of work are relying on the food he provides. He asked the city to waive the fees so he can continue. He also started a GoFundMe campaign. To date the campaign has raised $2,850.
The pantry serves families, seniors, disabled and unhoused 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, which is a needed bridge between difficult to reach food pantries located further away.
Resident Diana Rodriguez said she’s not currently working and has no income. The food pantry allows her to get fresh vegetables, which are essential as 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 Northside 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 out of a back of a truck. He later served people from a garage and a year ago opened the food stand. In locating there, he was able to partner with nonprofits like Hunger at Home, Loaves and Fishes, Second Harvest and Martha’s Kitchen. Levi’s Stadium, Safeway and Lunardi’s also stepped up to help.
Housing advocate Shaunn Cartwright told San José Spotlight Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry wouldn’t be successful in what it’s doing if there wasn’t a huge gap in services provided by the city and county. Cartwright said forcing the food pantry to get a permit makes it seem like the city is interested in making feeding unhoused 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]