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Old St. Mary’s is home base for senior food program

02 Groceries4seniors1.woman PAGEBefore dawn four mornings a week, a dozen or so Groceries for Seniors volunteers help to sort and divide oranges, peanut butter, rice and other nutritious groceries into bags that will be delivered to apartment buildings housing needy seniors. (Photos by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

June 8, 2017
Christina Gray

Thousands of low-income seniors in San Francisco have a redeemed drug addict they will never meet and a Paulist-run parish in Chinatown to thank for the big bag of groceries dropped at their front door each week.

02-03 GFS Logo HALF02 Groceries4seniors1.Meehan THUMBGroceries for Seniors is the legacy of ‘a very unlikely saint,’ the late John Meehan (1944-2012)


The late John Meehan, a renegade Irishman who found God in prison in 1976, vowed upon his release to spend the rest of his life helping others. And that he did. His legacy is Groceries for Seniors, a nonprofit run out of the basement parish hall of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral Parish since 1999.

Four days a week, hours before the 7:30 a.m. weekday Mass, the hall becomes an organized whirlwind of activity as staff and volunteers sort and divide boxes of donated apples, oranges, vegetables, peanut butter, eggs, rice and other nutrient-rich foods into bags that will be delivered within hours to the doorsteps of more than 1,000 of the city’s neediest senior apartment dwellers.

Associate pastor Paulist Father Tom Tavella told Catholic San Francisco during a visit to the operation May 9 that while Groceries for Seniors is a separate, self-funded and self-run organization, he considers it perhaps the parish’s largest and most active ministry.

“It just amazes me that we are helping to feed that many people,” said Father Tavella.

The parish has made Groceries for Seniors a priority by committing the parish hall to the operation four mornings a week year round, scheduling its own activities around it. The parish promotes the organization from the pulpit and parishioners donate money and volunteer time.

The program “is doing what the Paulists do in a very concrete way,” he said.

According to Andy Burns, program manager for the San Francisco/Marin Food Bank, which donates the bulk of the food for the Groceries for Seniors program, more than 60,000 San Francisco seniors fall below the federal poverty line and face what he called daily “food insecurity.”

He said more than 25,000 are very low-income and survive on less than $1,000 a month. The cost of food in San Francisco is estimated to be 23 percent higher than the national average, and “many must choose between food and their medications,” which can further compromise their wellbeing. “Furthermore,” Burns said, “the high cost of housing can consume most of their income.”

Hunger was not an abstract social problem for John Meehan, who grew up in an abusive household in an impoverished section of East Orange, N.J. and remembered eating ketchup sandwiches as a child. As an escape, he turned to petty theft, burglary and heroin and spent the better part of his youth in and out of orphanages, reformatories and jails.

In 1967 at the age of 22, Meehan moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district where he continued his life on the fringe. But in 1976 while serving time in a California state prison for drug addicts, he beseeched God for help, promising to spend the remainder of his days doing good.

A year later, a clean and sober Meehan enrolled in Project Rebound, a program for ex-offenders at San Francisco State University, and discovered a gift for poetry. He made the dean’s list and eventually became executive director of the program. But after a prolonged illness, he found himself homeless and hungry.

While living on the streets, Meehan co-founded and for 15 years ran the Haight Ashbury Food Program, still in operation today. He completed his bachelor’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State and later enrolled in USF’s master’s program in nonprofit administration upon the encouragement of his mentor, the late Jesuit Brother Jack Graham. With Brother Graham’s support, Meehan founded an emergency food program for seniors in 1999 which today is known as Groceries for Seniors.

In the last decade of his life, Meehan formed a connection to the former pastor of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Paulist Father Charles R. Kullmann, who offered the parish hall to the program as an operations center.

Groceries for Seniors is supported solely by a roster of loyal volunteers, individual donors, foundations, businesses and more recently, the Mayor’s Office of San Francisco. In addition to food from the SF/Marin Food Bank, Groceries for Seniors receives food from Whole Foods, Haight Street Market, Falletti Foods and others.

“John Meehan put this whole network together and that is really quite the story,” said Tom Beaver, program director for Groceries for Seniors, one of the lean organization’s only two paid part-time positions.

After ending a more than 30-year career in the music industry, Beaver oversees daily operations, manages volunteers, coordinates food donations and deliveries, writes fundraising grants and reports to the organization’s board of directors.

“This gentleman was a very unlikely saint, not one you would see coming,” he said of Meehan, whose trademark fedora hangs on the wall of his tiny office in the parish basement. “But having inherited all this, I am very impressed by what he did. There are a lot of moving pieces.”

The most significant moving piece is the Groceries for Seniors van, loaded and driven by longtime volunteer and Old St. Mary’s parishioner Bob Panelli, to buildings in Chinatown, the Western Addition, South of Market and more.

When he arrived to an apartment building on his route in the Tenderloin on the day of our visit, the lobby is filled with expectant seniors who organized a light hearted “fire brigade” system to help Panelli unload his bounty from the van.

“When Bob rolls in, the anticipation is really high,” said Beaver, who said that he discovered that Groceries for Seniors delivers more than just food. Many seniors don’t have a good reason to leave their rooms and can become isolated.

“For many of these people, it’s like the social event of the week,” he said.

Visit groceriesforseniors.org.


02 Groceries4seniors8.loading HALFLongtime volunteer and van driver Bob Panelli gets help unloading the Groceries for Seniors van from two residents after it arrives at a Western Addition apartment building May 9. (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

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