'I don't see the money': Silicon Valley residents struggle as tech companies flourish

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif .-- On a bright but busy Saturday morning in December, less than two miles from the Frank Gehry-designed Facebook campus, a steady stream of Toyotas, Hondas and minivans lined up at a weekly grocery distribution location in Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle school.
Each vehicle idled on the tarmac for about 10 minutes when Laura Haggins, 36, an East Palo Alto native, casually dressed in sweat, walked around getting her packages ready. She made sure her volunteers gave each vehicle what the group defined as a week's meal: a whole frozen chicken; a box of non-perishable goods, including rice; a bag of dry snacks such as cereal; and a so-called Trump Box from the Agriculture Department. This week the box contained a dozen potatoes, cheese, milk, yogurt, and celery.
East Palo Alto sits amid some of the wealthiest communities in the country. Neighboring Palo Alto - only 3 km south - has established well-known technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Google and Palantir over the decades. A six-minute drive west is Menlo Park, the hometown of Facebook, with an average household income of nearly $ 241,000. A little further west is Atherton, America's richest city with an average household income of nearly $ 512,000.
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But when Haggins stood on the tarmac outside Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School, she said she saw very little of that wealth. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the demand for free groceries has quadrupled, increasing from 600 families per month to 600 families in need per week.
"I don't see the money," she said.
Limited giving
As Silicon Valley has had one of its most profitable years in history, thousands of people are starving who live within walking distance of the headquarters of the world's most famous tech giants. That's because the pandemic, which added even more work to tech companies, took jobs away from many sectors - from restaurants to retail to some healthcare jobs. While many of the billionaires of these tech companies have focused on charitable giving on a global scale, local charities see they face increasing demands for food, housing, rent benefits, and other necessities and that there is no end in sight.
Demand doubled during the pandemic, according to Second Harvest, the food bank that primarily serves Silicon Valley and South San Francisco Bay. The number of families in need has more than tripled, according to local food distribution outlets, including middle school and Ecumenical Hunger Program locations across the city.
Image: (John Brecher / For NBC News)
While local tech companies are helping, nonprofits say that just isn't enough. Case in point: Every week, Facebook buys organic products from local farmers' markets and has Facebook employees pack the products and deliver them to various locations in the region, such as the Laurel Avenue Church of Christ in East Palo Alto, for distribution. However, demand quickly outstrips supply.
"We're running out of 200 boxes in an hour," said Bruce Nash, the pastor for the church. He said he has served more food forage "professionals" since the pandemic began, including people who work in information technology, sales, marketing, and healthcare. "The need has grown tremendously over the pandemic," he said.
Another food distribution point operated by the Ecumenical Hunger Program, also in East Palo Alto, has been supplying 1,200 households a week since the beginning of the pandemic. That's almost three times what it was before the pandemic, said LaKesha Roberts, the group's deputy director. She expects it to grow to 1,500 households in the run-up to Christmas as other distribution centers close over the holidays. The group also receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, but Roberts said the center needs more help.
"We are getting more from our working-class families and because they are so badly affected by Covid ... they rely on services they have never had before," Roberts said. "I'll say that: I definitely believe that everyone can do more."
And nonprofits know that businesses can afford to give more.
At the same time, more residents of Silicon Valley are having trouble putting food on the table. The tech companies that border the sales locations are doing better than ever. Profits at Alphabet, Google's parent company, which is 7 miles southeast of middle school, rose to $ 11.2 billion over the same period from $ 7 billion last year. Even Amazon, based in Seattle and Arlington, Virginia, has a notable subsidiary called A9 just 3 miles from the school. Amazon's quarterly earnings tripled year over year in the third quarter of 2020, exceeding $ 6.3 billion.
Similarly, Apple, 18 miles from the school, posted over $ 57 billion in profits in 2020, down from $ 55.2 billion a year ago. That year, Facebook's third-quarter earnings were over $ 7.8 billion, up 20 percent from the same period last year.
Google declined to respond to questions about charitable donations. Heather Dickinson, a Google spokeswoman, refers to the latest third quarter press release that doesn't mention the words "charity" or "donation" or even "coronavirus". To be fair, according to a separate press release from the company, Google has made a $ 100 million pledge to respond to Covid-19, in addition to direct monetary aid to vulnerable families through several nonprofits and $ 10 million in support Distance learning support.
Similarly, Amazon spokeswoman Allison Flicker declined to answer questions about how the company's donations to charity have changed. She pointed out a blog post about recent donations. The December 16 article highlights, among other things, US $ 20 million for Covid-19 research and US $ 23 million for supporting relief efforts in Europe. In addition, earlier this year the company announced that CEO Jeff Bezos made a personal donation of $ 100 million to Feeding America, the country's largest domestic hunger relief organization. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Bezos is worth $ 188 billion, making him the richest person in the world.
On December 15, Bezos' ex-wife MacKenzie Scott announced that she had given $ 4.1 billion to 384 organizations in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. California recipients include Silicon Valley Goodwill, Central California Food Bank, San Francisco YMCA, United Way Bay Area, and others.
Apple and Facebook defended how much they gave.
"We have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to relief efforts around the world and nearer home grants to nearly 100 organizations across California, including many in the Bay Area," said Rachel Tulley, an Apple spokeswoman, in a statement. "And with many housing developments being put on hold, we've sped up our spending on affordable housing across the state, spending over $ 500 million this year helping thousands of Californians."
Chloe Meyere, a Facebook spokeswoman, said via email that the company has committed "hundreds of millions to help communities," including in the San Francisco Bay Area and California. She added that "did more than $ 200 million towards creating affordable housing, helping frontline health workers and small businesses, providing food to those who need it, helping out with forest fires and includes distance learning assistance. "
Different approaches
A portion of the charity donation comes from where wealthy Silicon Valley executives give their money. Many local billionaires, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Uber co-founder Garrett Camp and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have signed the Giving Pledge, a pledge to "publicly commit to devoting most of their wealth to philanthropy." But the commitment doesn't require them to give money now, nor does it force them to donate in their backyards.
"Silicon Valley wasn't very local. You say, 'What major changes can we make in society?' As opposed to traditional giving, which is shelters and food banks that are most needed right now, "said Brian Mittendorf, professor of accounting and philanthropy expert at Ohio State University.
Some philanthropy experts say that Big Tech hasn't done a great job in the past supporting charities that are on-site immediately. Rob Reich, director of the Center for Ethics in Society and co-director of the Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, said donors in Silicon Valley are often bogged down through litigation and analysis rather than providing direct assistance.
"The technocratic and technical influence of how people made their money went into their philanthropy," he said.
When the local rich in Silicon Valley donate, they usually give them to higher education institutions and hospitals. This comes from a landmark study by Open Impact, a consulting firm that looked at donations to charity in Silicon Valley in 2016. For example, Zuckerberg and Benioff contributed $ 175 million to the city's two legendary hospitals named after them.
Image: Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (Jeff Chiu / AP)
According to the Silicon Valley Business Journal, the largest local corporate donor isn't a technology company at all. Sobrato Philanthropies - the nonprofit arm of Sobrato Real Estate, a local commercial real estate giant serving Big Tech - gave away more than $ 60 million in 2020, more than double what Google, the next largest donor, is giving away locally Has. Sandy Herz, the president of Sobrato Philanthropies, said this was in part because Sobrato remains a privately owned, family-run company.
"It is unusual for corporations - usually public corporations - to go beyond a PR level of community engagement because it has traditionally been committed to the primacy of shareholder value," said Herz. "Our shareholders are right here looking after the community and the quality of life in the community and their children for the future."
Give more
But some corners of Silicon Valley are awakening to urgent local needs - in part because of what came before.
After the controversy surrounding the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, one of the largest nonprofit foundations in the country, which encouraged the rich to put their money in donor-advised funds or DAFs and then distributed relatively little money locally, some former executives of the Silicon Valley pressured colleagues to give away half of their money in such funds immediately.
In May, Jennifer Risher and her husband David Risher, a former executive at Microsoft and Amazon, ran the # HalffMyDAF program to encourage owners to immediately cut their DAF holdings in half and donate to charity. To sweeten the deal, the Risher family donated $ 1 million of their own money as "matching grants" to organizations receiving money from the partially liquidated DAFs.
"We just stipulated that we wouldn't create anything that encourages hate crime or violence," said Jennifer Risher.
As a result of her initial $ 1 million donation, Risher said, $ 8.6 million was transferred to numerous nonprofits, including local ones like the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, the YWCA of Silicon Valley, and Second Harvest.
Some people, like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, have also tried to set examples. That year he founded Start Small, a company that helps give away billions of his assets relatively quickly and transparently.
I'm pulling $ 1 billion of my Square equity (~ 28% of my net worth) to #startsmall LLC to fund COVID-19 relief worldwide. After we disarm this pandemic, the focus will shift to girls' health and education and the UBI. It will work transparently, all flows will be tracked here: https://t.co/hVkUczDQmz
- jack (@jack) April 7, 2020
He has already donated nearly half of the Give2SF COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, or $ 15 million, which the city uses to "provide shelter, groceries and other aid to individuals, families, small businesses and nonprofits in San Francisco." " financed . He also donated $ 10 million to the Oakland Digital Divide Campaign so that every student there can have a laptop and access to the Internet from home. Aaron Zamost, a spokesman for Start Small, declined to provide Dorsey for an interview.
And some Silicon Valley executives have focused on one of the most pressing problems: hunger.
Since the pandemic began, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has increased her and her husband's donations to numerous groups in the Bay Area and encouraged their colleagues in the valley to do the same. In addition to her annual donation of $ 600,000 to Second Harvest, Sandberg donated an additional $ 2 million this year. Mike Schroepfer, Facebook's Chief Technology Officer, also donated $ 3 million to Second Harvest this year.
In addition, Sandberg donated $ 500,000 to YWCA Silicon Valley and a total of millions more to other charitable donations to businesses, education programs and other groups, said Caroline Nolan, a Facebook spokeswoman.
Swati Mylavarapu, who used to work at Square, and her husband Matt Rogers, an Apple alumnus who co-founded Nest, which was bought by Google, recently got others online to donate to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.
"This year we added another zero to the end of our contribution number to indicate that we are trying to give as much as possible and hopefully motivate others," she said.
Change feelings
Back in East Palo Alto, despite the best efforts of the philanthropists, the most vulnerable populations are still starving. On early December 4th, according to the video, a group of men on bicycles broke through the sliding gate of the Ecumenical Hunger Program.
Roberts, the group's deputy director, said the thieves broke into an outdoor freezer several times to steal frozen pieces of chicken. She said that she had never seen anything like it in her seven years on the job.
But miracles sometimes happen in the least expected ways. Just hours after the freezer was plucked by those desperately looking for food, a man arrived unannounced on what appeared to be a purpose-built electric scooter. He said he wanted to donate.
Roberts said the person she referred to as a "tall, Caucasian man" reached into his pocket and handed her $ 1,000. The man she said gave his name as "Jack" declined an invitation to the office for a donation receipt. It slipped away almost as quickly as it got there.
"For every bad seed there are 100 more great ones," she said. "And that makes it worthwhile."

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