Food industry, farmers step up response to natural disasters in Sonoma County

“I can’t fight fires, but I can cook dinner,” said John Stewart, co-owner of Black Pig bacon and the Black Piglet food truck. “I just kept thinking, ‘If we cook and feed them so they can fight the fire, we’ll get through this.’?”|

If practice makes perfect, it’s no wonder North County chefs and farmers have gotten so good in the last few years at responding to natural disasters.

Since the Tubbs fire in October 2017, fires and floods have afforded folks from every corner of the local food industry ample opportunities to sharpen their ability to provide food for victims, first responders and those in need.

As a result, response efforts that hinge on local chefs and farmers have gotten more streamlined, more strategic and more advanced.

“The more fires and floods we have, the better we’re getting at responding to them and getting people what they need,” said John Franchetti, chef and co-owner of Franchettis’ in Santa Rosa. “If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that.”

A role for every chef

The response to last month’s Kincade fire is a perfect example of how the new approach plays out.

As soon as the fire started, even before the evacuation site opened in the Healdsburg Community Center, local chefs such as Dustin Valette of Valette, Kyle Connaughton of Single Thread and Domenica Catelli of Catelli’s mobilized to do what they do best: Prepare multicourse meals for evacuees and first responders through the night.

Connaughton noted chefs were downright “tactical” in volunteering to prepare specific dishes: One cooked main courses, one did starches, another did vegetables.

“The first time (in response to the Tubbs fire), everyone was just scrambling to help,” Connaughton said. “Since then we’ve learned it’s better to take an approach that’s more like, ‘You cook this, I’ll cook that.’ That kind of preparedness and cooperation is key.”

Duskie Estes and John Stewart, owners of Black Pig bacon and the Black Piglet food truck, also were involved in those initial responses.

Every good squad deserves a name - Estes, Valette and Catelli referred to themselves as the “Three D’s.” When Stewart and his wife weren’t working with other chefs, they’d often take their food truck to a burned-out neighborhood and give out free food to those returning to survey the damage. For Stewart, feeding first responders was most meaningful. His father was a volunteer firefighter in upstate New York for more than 67 years, and Stewart said he learned at a young age that when there’s a crisis, you help however you can.

“I can’t fight fires, but I can cook dinner,” he said. “I just kept thinking, ‘If we cook and feed them so they can fight the fire, we’ll get through this.’?”

Sonoma Family Meal

Few understand the evolution of response efforts better than Heather Irwin, dining editor for The Press Democrat and founder of Sonoma Family Meal, a nonprofit designed to feed fire survivors who lost their homes, first responders and others in need.

Irwin started her organization out of necessity following the Tubbs fire, and essentially put her life on hold as she forged relationships with about a dozen local chefs to get people fed.

Chefs made the food and Irwin and her team of volunteers served it. In the months following the Tubbs fire, they doled out thousands of premade meals each day. Meals were packaged for four people at a time; they comprised everything from tuna casserole and chicken noodle soup to rabbit ragout with polenta, baked chicken with braised greens, or focaccia pizza.

“We sought to provide a moment of normalcy in a very scary time,” Irwin wrote in a recent email. “We asked for no documentation, no proof of residency, nothing. We just fed people.”

In the beginning, after the Tubbs fire, Irwin sought many of the donations herself. Since then, Irwin has put into motion a plan to manage volunteer chefs under de facto “captains” who can spearhead response in different areas. The group rolled out its plan following the Kincade fire, when it gave out roughly 8,000 meals.

Since January 2018, Sonoma Family Meal has continued to cook for a core group of somewhere between 50 and 80 families. This constant demand has inspired Irwin to streamline the organization in other ways. First, she secured commercial kitchen space in Petaluma to cook the food. Second, she hired an executive chef: Heather Ames, who was the executive chef at Skywalker Ranch for 18 years. The initiative has resulted in close ties between volunteers and the families they serve.

“We’ve been there with (these families) as houses are rebuilt, as babies are born, as (sadly) a few of them have died, as they leave the country, and as they generally rebuild their lives,” Irwin wrote. “They are truly our family at this point.”

Sharpening farm response efforts

On the other end of the food industry, farmers have worked to make their approach to disasters more effective and more efficient, too.

Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications at the Farmers Guild and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, said his organization has added an entirely new category to the services it offers: disaster preparedness and response.

These new services have come in many forms: animal relocation assistance, site recovery, and town hall-style lectures on issues ranging from land management to fuel-load reduction and defensible space.

Right before the Kincade fire started, the alliance was putting the finishing touches on an online resource that compiled information about fire preparedness. Later this winter the group will sponsor a six-week online course that drills deeper into the same subject.

“Prior to 2017, we didn’t do any of this,” Wiig said. “Now we’re establishing systems to meet a need.”

While the alliance has bolstered its programs and services, Wiig added that the organization has launched two separate programs to offer farmers different forms of financial assistance during times of crisis, as well.

One, the North Bay Just and Resilient Future Fund, exists to help farmers replace lost resources such as barns and equipment, and to support farmworkers who are critical to the survival of farms. Since the fund was created in 2017, the alliance has raised more than $380,000 for this initiative alone.

Increased collaboration

Another lesson the food industry has learned from recent natural disasters: Competition is irrelevant.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this evolution like the way two different local restaurant owners helped each other save product when PG&E killed power to most of the region during the Kincade fire. The restaurateurs: Mark and Terri Stark, who own Stark Reality Restaurants, and Dennis and Ann Tussey, who own Sweet T’s.

When the Starks heard the city of Windsor was given an evacuation order, they invited the Tusseys to store food in the walk-in at Grossman’s, the Railroad Square Jewish deli that will become the latest Stark offering when it opens in January. The couples share an unfortunate distinction: Both lost restaurants in the Tubbs fire.

The Tusseys jumped at the chance, not sure what would happen with their product in the long run. It turned out Grossman’s never lost power, so most of the Sweet T’s product was salvaged.

“What’s happened since the Tubbs fire is that there’s more of the idea that we’re all in this together and that it’s silly for us to be competing against each other during times of crisis,” said Terri Stark. “I’d go so far to say that the sense of community within the restaurant community is stronger than ever. That’s a pretty special place to be.”

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