A Grass-Roots Effort To Feed The Poor Is Growing, Burrito By Burrito

Jimmy Ryan's recipe for burritos is really pretty simple. It calls for 50 pounds of rice, 50 pounds of beans, a couple of cases of canned tomatoes and several hundred tortillas.

That may sound like a lot, but Ryan is one of the organizers of the Burrito Project in San Francisco, an informal charity that makes and distributes about 500 burritos to the homeless once a month. On May 21, the group celebrated its second anniversary and rolled its 10,000th burrito.

"Burritos are grab and go," Ryan says. "You can pack protein in there and some vegetables and they're easy to eat."

The desire to distribute healthy, easily portable burritos is catching on. Ryan brought the idea with him from Los Angeles, where the Burrito Project concept was born more than a decade ago. There are now a half-dozen groups in the LA area alone, with welcome copycats spreading across the West and as far away as Florida and Quebec.

A couple of the entities have registered as 501(c)3 charities, but others remain completely informal. Anyone is allowed to use the name as long as they're providing burritos and not making any money off the service. "From what I understand, we have one of the only burrito projects that runs four days a week," says Rai Doty, a coordinator in Salt Lake City. "Four days a week, we feed 200 to 500 people a night."

The groups rely on a mix of donated food and sponsorships. In San Francisco, different companies pay the bills each month, helping out with both funding and manpower. For the anniversary event, 15 people showed up from Redbubble, a digital art marketplace. "It's important to show our employees the community we live in and take accountability for it," says Michael Kyle, a manager with the company.

The crowd on that Monday was mostly young and white, but several other racial and ethnic groups were represented, with at least one grandmother helping out. For some, this effort represents just one stop along their personal charity journeys, which also include efforts such as working at animal shelters or churches. But for others, this was a quick and painless way to give back, requiring less effort or time commitment than volunteering at some of the more established nonprofits in town. Those who walked in saying they don't normally cook found that they could certainly chop and scoop.

Several participants said they showed up because the Burrito Project simply sounds like a fun charity. In San Francisco, one of the world's great foodie capitals, the humble burrito retains an outsized place in the culinary imagination, with competing burrito palaces in the Mission District drawing long lines day and night. "Burritos hit my self-interest," says retired volunteer Calvin Pon. "When I saw an article about it, I thought, 'Burritos? I love burritos!' "

Once people learn about the ongoing event through news accounts or social media, there tends to be a ripple effect — participants bring friends along the next time around. The organizers say they're trying to make the event fun and welcoming, asking everyone to introduce themselves and providing kombucha and cake to celebrate their anniversary.

Tyler Winterholter used to routinely come to help. When Winterholter moved to Denver for a job, he brought the idea with him. During their first outing last month, they served 279 burritos to the homeless. His new employer, the restaurant group Bonanno Concepts, is donating all the ingredients. "Out here, they're really hungry, because they don't have all the services they do in San Francisco," Winterholter says. "When we showed up, they were literally running to us."

In San Francisco, volunteers from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other cyclists go wherever the homeless might be found, carrying homemade Google maps that display encampment areas the group has come across over time.

Each cyclist stuffs a bag with 20 or 30 burritos. The general rule is one per customer, but no one who asks for a second is refused. Ingredients may vary depending on donations, but the burritos are kept vegan so they won't go bad if they're saved for a day or two. "A few people want meat, but they're a vocal minority," says Nic Fontaine, who regularly helps hand them out.

The soup kitchen that allows the Burrito Project to use its kitchen is located on the edge of the Mission District, which is ground zero for gentrification pressures in San Francisco. It's still a melting pot of Mexican fruit markets, meditative cafes and radical-left bookshops, but a million-dollar apartment in the neighborhood would now be considered a steal. The Mission has become a prime disembarkation point for the controversial private buses that drop off employees coming home from work at companies such as Google, Facebook and Genentech.

There are visible homeless people all over the Mission, out on the streets and under the elevated sections of California Highway 101 that ring a portion of the neighborhood. Several of the volunteers who showed up at the most recent event spoke openly about wanting to do something to assuage the sense of guilt that comes from thriving in tech or finance in a boom city where so many are left with nothing.

The Burrito Project encourages volunteers not just to hand out food, but to stop and interact with individuals who are often neglected or avoided. "Obviously, my daughter sees a lot of homeless people," says Rahul Young, a Mission resident who brought Ione, his 7-year-old daughter, to participate. "This is a way of helping her understand all parts of the community."

No one is under the illusion that handing out an occasional burrito is going to solve anyone's problems. Some Burrito Project outposts try to do more than occasionally feed people. During the snowy season in Salt Lake City, the group partners with Warm the Homeless, which distributes blankets, coats and hats. The long-running project in Bakersfield, Calif., has been adopted by high school and church groups who hand out clothes and shoes when there are donations. Their ninth anniversary event on July 8 will provide a forum for representatives from other local groups that provide housing, health and legal assistance.

At its most recent event, the San Francisco Burrito Project happened to have donated chips and coconut water to give away, along with hygiene kits put together by volunteer Anna Hurst and her friends as a birthday project. "I don't know what the solution is," she says, "but at least this gives them something to eat."

Recipients seemed to appreciate it. Al Lewis has been living on the streets for nearly 30 years, the consequence of a long-ago addiction to crack cocaine, although he says he has been clean for a couple of years now.

He's a regular client at the soup kitchen where the San Francisco Burrito Project is located. The occasional burrito makes a nice break, Lewis says, from the potato soup, barley and oatmeal he's usually served there. "I prefer burritos," he says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.