San Jose lawmakers do an about face on food pantry fees
The Lighthouse Ministries Food Pantry in San Jose was recently at risk of closing due to a pricey city permit. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

After a costly city permit threatened a downtown food pantry’s operation, the community stepped up to raise more than $18,000. Now, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmember Raul Peralez are asking their council colleagues to step up too.

Lighthouse Ministries, located at 309 N. 17th St., fed more than 1,000 people a day, six days a week, before it was forced to halt operations for several days in early January after receiving a notice from the city that it wasn’t complying with zoning rules and needed to pay up to $15,500 for a special use permit.

A day after San José Spotlight reported the story, a GoFundMe account exploded with donations—including an anonymous donor who gave $10,000. The ministry’s pastor said the money would be used to pay off the permit fees and make improvements to the food pantry.

But Liccardo and Peralez on Monday announced a proposal to allow Lighthouse Ministries and similar organizations to continue operations by waiving special use permitting fees or identifying alternative funding to cover fee costs. The proposal will go to the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee on Feb. 2 where it’s likely to pass before heading to the full City Council.

Lighthouse Ministries Pastor Ralph Olmos told San José Spotlight he was delighted by the news when city officials reached out to him on Sunday night.

“I feel like we’re being seen now,” Olmos said. “I think we are going to reach a whole other group of people now that we don’t have to pay those fees.”

The proposal suspends land use regulations for food distribution sites until the local state of emergency order related to the COVID-19 pandemic expires, or by a vote of the City Council.

For many, COVID closures and cases ravaged their communities.

In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, the number of people relying on Second Harvest Food Bank for groceries grew to 500,000 since the start of the pandemic. Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen tripled the amount of people to feed to 1.5 million a year since the pandemic began. That number alone equates to more than half of Santa Clara County’s population.

Liccardo said he’s deeply appreciative of the work of Olmos and others “to keep our most vulnerable neighbors and families fed.”

“San Jose must continue to uplift those in our community who continue to do critical work during the pandemic,” Liccardo said in a statement.

Peralez said he’s looking forward to finding a solution and appreciates organizations that have filled the much-needed gap.

Olmos said the gap is especially great in the city’s downtown core—calling it a food desert. He said with the prospect of waived fees, he hopes to reach more isolated communities and continue building relationships with the neighborhood using the $18,000 in donations.

“We want to utilize this whole free farmers market-like set up and position ourselves within the community in areas that don’t have access to local food pantries that are more in commercial areas,” Olmos said.

The committee will hear Liccardo and Peralez’s proposal on Feb. 2 before going to the City Council the following Tuesday.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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