UPDATE: Food pantry fee waiver heads to San Jose City Council
Anthony Rodrigues, pictured speaking with Lighthouse manager Tony Covarrubias, said the food pantry helps him and gives him love. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Some San Jose food pantries could see their fees waived thanks to a proposal making its way to the City Council.

    The city’s Rules and Open Government Committee voted Wednesday to waive special use permit fees or find funding to cover costs for Lighthouse Ministries and other pandemic-related food pantries. The full City Council will consider it later this year.

    Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry learned last month it needed a special use permit costing up to $15,500 to continue operating. It stemmed from a complaint filed with the city in January citing traffic and pedestrian impacts, which resulted in the pantry’s temporary closure.

    The city allowed it to reopen, but informed the nonprofit it was not in compliance with zoning rules. This requires a costly special use permit. The high cost comes from the need for an environmental and planning review, public notification and outreach and a public hearing, all which require staff. The nonprofit could not afford the fees.

    Chris Burton, director of planning, building and code enforcement, said the department doesn’t want to impact the food pantry’s operations. 

    “We know this is an important service that they’re providing to the community,” Burton said, adding his department strives to bring businesses into compliance, not shut them down.

    Therefore, the deadline for Lighthouse to apply for a special use permit will be pushed back until a program can be put into place that provides cost offsets or waivers for food distribution and other social service organizations. It will require going through a budget process, Burton said. 

    “The need is great and will be ongoing probably well beyond the end of the emergency order,” he said. “So we think it’s appropriate to… address this in a more comprehensive manner.”

    After San Josè Spotlight helped publicize its plight, the food pantry’s GoFundMe account exceeded the needed amount overnight. If the proposal is approved by the full City Council, Lighthouse would be able to redirect those funds toward enhancing the food pantry, extending its outreach, paying for parking signs and adding another location.

    The food pantry, located at E. Julian and 17th streets, feeds more than 1,000 people a day, six days a week. From a farmer’s market-style food distribution stand, volunteers provide eggs, milk, bread, fresh fruits and vegetables to families, seniors, disabled and homeless people in need. Food is also distributed to nearby homeless camps.

    Dire need

    Pastor Ralph Olmos, who runs the food pantry, said he didn’t realize initially how great the need was. He said his wife told him he couldn’t turn back after helping so many people.

    Olmos said he felt ecstatic and grateful following the unanimous vote and appreciates the community’s support.

    “It felt good to know that we are doing something thats impacting our city for the (better),” he said. “It’s my hope that Lighthouse will be more than a food pantry on 17th Street, but a beacon of hope with many more locations to come.”

    Liccardo, who proposed the fee waiver with Councilmember Raul Peralez, did not speak at the meeting. He said in a statement the city must uplift residents doing critical work during the pandemic.

    “I am deeply appreciative of the work that Pastor Olmos and Lighthouse Ministries are doing to keep our most vulnerable neighbors and families fed,” he said.

    A resident who called into the meeting said the food pantry exists because there is such a dire need. She said it’s not just the people picking up the food who are fed, but their families as well.

    “I’m grateful to have Lighthouse in an area where we need services,” she said. “They exist because the city, county and other groups just aren’t able to provide the same services in the same areas. We need more Lighthouses. We need more beacons of light.”

    The new proposal includes a commitment from Lighthouse Ministries to continue working with its neighbors and the city to resolve traffic and pedestrian issues.

    As food insecurity has dramatically increased during the pandemic, CalFresh and local nonprofits have ramped up services to meet this need. Second Harvest Food Bank has seen the number of people it serves in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties double during the pandemic from 250,000 to 500,000. Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen saw its numbers triple to 1.5 million people annually.

    Peralez, who noted it will take several months for the proposal to make its way to the full City Council, said the pandemic is challenging for many families, especially when it comes to food insecurity. He told San José Spotlight he’s pleased with the vote.

    “I think my colleagues understand the importance as well,” he said, adding he appreciates staff thinking creatively not only how to help Lighthouse Ministries, but other food pantries as well.

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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