Low-income South San Francisco residents will be eligible to receive free $40 gift cards which can be redeemed for essential goods such as groceries, meals, pharmaceutical products or gas under a new initiative designed to help those suffering amid the pandemic.

The South San Francisco City Council unanimously approved during a meeting Wednesday, May 26, the financial aid program intended to assist as many as 2,200 households, which is planned to start in August.

The program is estimated to cost $97,600 and funds will be drawn from federal coronavirus recovery money paid to the city. The cards will be redeemable for three months and solely at local businesses, as officials hope the program will also help the city’s economy rebound.

“I think this is win-win,” said Councilman Eddie Flores, who spearheaded the effort to form the initiative.

The program was first discussed in the spring, among a slate of other proposals to help locals struggling financially during the pandemic. The idea was initially raised as a food voucher program, through which families would have received packs of coupons redeemable at local outlets. And while officials lauded the intent, they expressed some skepticism regarding the high overhead of the proposal to spend roughly $200,000 on a program ultimately expected to generate about $125,000 in coupons

At the most recent meeting, officials appreciated the revised effort to cut associated costs, while preserving the abilities to assist families needing help and stimulate the local economy.

There are tradeoffs, however, as officials said the new format limits their capacity to track whether households are getting just one card, which is the intent of the program. Officials said nonprofit partners like YMCA or JobTrain will help distribute the cards, and there are some safeguards built into the plan. But there is an acknowledgement that some households may ultimately receive multiple cards. And if officials wished to have greater control over the distribution, the cost of running the program would likely inflate, Alex Greenwood, director of Economic and Community Development, said.

For his part, Mayor Mark Addiego said he considered it an acceptable risk to launch the program as proposed and face the reality that some may receive extra benefits.

“I don’t think we should overly bother ourselves with the idea that a family might get two cards,” he said. “This is not going to change anyone’s lives, but it will make it better for the moment if they have an extra $40 or $80.”

Flores concurred, suggesting the program could provide a simple sort of relief for families needing to fill their car tank with gas, or pay for an asthma inhaler or buy a pizza meal on a Friday night. “This is putting recovery money in the hands of those that need it, into the low-income population here in South San Francisco,” he said.

The program will be offered once, but Greenwood said officials will track where the gift cards are redeemed to help glean of better understanding or where the greatest needs are in the community. The gift cards cannot be used acquire alcohol or tobacco, and will only be accepted at markets, restaurants, pharmacies, gas stations or other personal services providers in South San Francisco.

If the program is successful, Addiego encouraged officials to consider reviving it later for another round.

“I don’t think this will solve food insecurity in the future, so there will be plenty of opportunities to look at it again,” City Manager Mike Futrell said.

Councilman James Coleman expressed his enthusiasm for getting the program off the ground as soon as possible.

“It is really exciting to see this happen,” he said.

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