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Need a Community-Building Recipe? Try Bingo

July is National Culinary Arts Month, recognizing professional cooks and chefs who sustain and delight communities through innovative recipes and meals. This month, St. Anthony Foundation is thrilled to spotlight the incredible individuals and their work behind the scenes at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, a staple of the Tenderloin neighborhood for over 70 years

July 18, 2023

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the daily meal service at St. Anthony’s Dining Room is finished. But instead of lively guest chatter, the room is unusually quiet. The only audible sound is that of staff members at the front table calling out letters and numbers: “G fifty-nine! “G fifty-nine!”

About two dozen men and women are gathered around dining tables. Some are in wheelchairs. Someone else brought a tiny dog in a red stroller. Everyone is hyper-focused on their blue cards, waiting for the lucky number to be called.

“Bingo!” exclaims a woman in a second-hand Raiders jacket with “Kat” embroidered on it. The room cheers for her. A St. Anthony’s staff member, Case Manager Lauren Urbina-Blanco, rushes up to the woman to check her card and give her a prize. The woman is glowing.

Lauren Urbina-Blanco, Community Case Manager at St. Anthony’s, with guest Deanita Gray during a game of bingo at St. Anthony’s Dining Room

“Oh-fifteen. Oh-fifteen!” calls out another staff member after spinning the wheel. “Somebody’s getting close. I can feel it!”

“Bingo,” announces a man at another table and raises his hand cautiously. He ends up winning a foot massager and twirls the box in his hands, inspecting it.

“How you do it is you plug it up and put your foot in there,” the St. Anthony’s team member explains. The man smiles and thanks her.

For nearly two years now, St. Anthony Foundation has been running bingo afternoons on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, offering guests a safe place to socialize after a meal and win practical prizes.

“What we noticed is after the meal ends at 1:30 pm, people tend to linger around,” explains Chris Pellouchoud, assistant manager of guest engagement at St. Anthony Foundation who oversees the bingo program. So the Guest Services team decided to bring the Tenderloin community together for a simple game that doesn’t cost the players anything: Bingo.

“It’s a safe, fun activity and it helps us expand beyond being just a dining room,” says Chris about the Dining Room, which serves more than 1,600 meals daily and has provided over 47 million meals since 1950. “Everyone leaves with a smile on their face. They’re laughing and they’re joking around.”

St. Anthony’s has a dedicated monthly budget for prizes, which include items that both housed and unhoused individuals can use. On this particular afternoon, a table next to the bingo wheel displays the coveted goods: a bath towel, fuzzy slippers, toiletries, Dr. Bronner’s soap, even an alarm clock.

“I just came and won all this stuff!” exclaims guest Elizabeth “Elle” Cumbie as she heads out in her wheelchair. She’s holding toiletries, a towel and a collapsible laundry bag. “I won twice today!”

Elle has only recently found out about bingo here and has already participated a few times, getting a positive boost after each game.

“It’s easy, and the prizes are wonderful,” says Elle. “And it’s a very good environment. Wherever I go for bingo, everybody tries to make it positive and safe, but this one by far exceeded it,” says Elle, who’s worked as a legal secretary for 43 years, but lost her housing after getting ill and ended up living in the shelter. Later, she was diagnosed with cancer. With the help of St. Anthony’s and other local community organizations, Elle eventually found housing in SoMa, but she still visits St. Anthony’s for its services and its community. “St. Anthony’s has always been there for me,” Elle says. “They cover our world.”

The guests here often struggle with food insecurity, poverty, homelessness, trauma and substance use disorders. Yet every interaction and smile from St. Anthony’s team helps them feel like winners. And while the bingo prizes are valuable, the sense of hope they provide is immeasurable. That’s why bingo is by far the most popular post-meal activity in the Dining Room.

Lauren Urbina-Blanco spins the bingo wheel during bi-weekly bingo afternoons in St. Anthony’s Dining Room

In addition to bingo, St. Anthony’s also hosts chess and board game afternoons every Tuesday, where players face off at Risk and Monopoly. There’s a chess tournament every other month, too, attended by a dozen or so players.

A large-screen TV encourages guests to socialize after eating and cheer for their favorite teams during the Olympics, the World Series or the football season.

And on Thursdays, the Dining Room hosts an afternoon “farmer’s market”—a brown bag food pantry organized by the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

“What we want to do is fill up every day of the week with something,” says Chris. He and his team hope to launch a Disney family movie afternoon for local families with kids. “I like to think of this block as the safest block in the Tenderloin,” he says. “My hope is that they can all just enjoy themselves and get their minds off the things that might be troubling them. If I was a guest, I’d know I can go here and they’re gonna keep me safe.”

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