I-House Residents Fighting COVID-19, One Care Package at a Time

With the rising spread of COVID-19, often referred to as the coronavirus, sweeping across the globe, efforts to stop the pandemic have been put in place. Numerous countries have implemented nation-wide lockdowns along with stay at home orders intended for the safety of the public. Those more susceptible to the virus, such as the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, can be left in precarious situations if unable to get the resources they need to quarantine properly at home. 

At UC Berkeley’s International House, or I-House, four residents decided they wanted to do something to help. Graduate students Nitasha Goyal, Marcel Schaack, Marie Rajon Bernard, and Oluwatoni “Toni” Adetayo, created SF Food Friends, a volunteer-matching program to help at-risk residents of San Francisco get their groceries and medication delivered to them by low-risk volunteers in the area. The idea for the platform came shortly after UC Berkeley moved to online instruction and social distancing measures were firmly implemented. Goyal, a native of New Jersey and a graduate student in Translational Medicine, helped pioneer the concept. 

After viewing a flyer online from Oakland at Risk, an organization which launched a volunteer-matching program to help deliver food to the elderly during the pandemic, Goyal was inspired to create something similar.

“I was at lunch, and I mentioned [the flyer] to Marcel, like, ‘Hey Marcel, I kinda want to do this thing. Would you be interested?’ He said, ‘Yeah, let me think about it and I’ll get back to you,’ and that night, he sent me a Google Doc, [where] he’d already laid out stuff,” she said. “And then we had a meeting and within 24 hours, Marie and Toni joined onboard as well.”

The conception of SF Food Friends to its launch happened within a matter of days. “I talked to Marcel on March 20th . . . and then by March 23rd, we launched our platform,” said Goyal.

Over 50 people have signed up as volunteers since its launch, according to the team. Volunteering is open to those aged 18 to 50 in the San Francisco area with no compromising health conditions. Their identities are verified after the sign-up process so the team knows they are real people.

SF Food Friends has partnered with different grocery outlets in San Francisco to create affordable care packages that can be delivered to residents in the area. The packages include milk, eggs, pasta, fruits and vegetables, to name a few, with both meat and vegetarian options available.  One of their first partnerships was with Mission Grocery Outlet which helped create $20 care packages. The official launch of deliveries began on April 13. The group recently partnered with SF Farmers Market which will provide meal packages ranging from $10-$30. 

The group also teamed up with City College of San Francisco (CCSF) to promote their efforts through social media.

“It’s amazing to see students from completely different universities who have no connection to each other whatsoever working together for the same cause,” said Goyal. “I cannot emphasize enough how much [CCSF] helped us in terms of outreach. It’s been great.”

Clockwise top left: Marie Rajon Bernard, Toni Adetayo, Nitasha Goyal, and Marcel Schaack. Courtesy of SF Food Friends.

While the group formed the platform to help those during the pandemic, they are open to exploring ways to continue it after stay at home orders have been lifted.

“I think [SF Food Friends] would definitely be a great thing to do further, but we definitely have to think about what we would do and how we would do it,” said Schaack, who is from Germany and pursuing a master’s in Bioengineering. For Goyal, the financial situation of the current economy is something to consider.

“We don’t see the . . . financial situation getting better right after the shelter in place, especially with the higher unemployment rates and things like that, so there would have to be some clear continuation, if that’s in the form of us continuing it, or merging with another partnership or helping a bigger organization,” she said. 

While several I-House residents returned to their homes due to the pandemic and border closings within their home countries, the SF Food Friends team decided to stay behind. 

“I . . . really wanted to make the most of the experience [at I-House] and stay with some people who are my age and who I could socially interact [with],” said Bernard, who is from France and pursuing a master’s in Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The biggest reason was also because I was looking for jobs, and if I had left the US, then I couldn’t have come back.”

All four are expected to graduate this Spring. When discussing their time at I-House, the group was grateful to be part of its community. 

“I love meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds,” said Adetayo, who is from Pennsylvania and pursuing a master’s in Chemical Engineering. “Moving to I-House was one of the best decisions I made.” 

Schaack shared the same sentiment. 

“International House was probably the most important part of my Berkeley experience,” he said. “I met everyone at SF Food friends here . . . and it just shows . . . how engaging the people here are.”

Overall, the group is grateful to help those in need during the pandemic. Their efforts can be summed up in a West African adage Adetayo heard growing up: It takes a village to raise a child. “[The saying] emphasizes community,” he said. “If you see an opportunity to help, you should take responsibility to help.”

For more information on SF Food Friends, please visit their website at sffoodfriends.org

About Chan'Cellore Makanjuola

Chan'Cellore Makanjuola is a second-year graduate student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, with her concentration in documentary filmmaking. She served as the I-House Social Media Ambassador from Fall 2019-Fall 2020 with the goal of capturing the magic that continues to make International House a prime residential experience for UC Berkeley students.
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