Sonoma County food community unites to help fire victims

Sonoma County already had a well-connected food and farming system before the October wildfires, but several spontaneous efforts to provide immediate relief are blossoming into programs that may continue long after the rebuilding begins. Individual groups of farmers, food distributors, chefs and philanthropists who stepped up to funnel local produce to ad hoc soup kitchens are finding ways to continue their work as a second wave of need emerges in Sonoma County.

On the first Friday after fires swept through Sonoma County, Tim Page drove from San Francisco to the Salvation Army in Sonoma County with 2,000 fresh, chef-made breakfasts stacked in the back of his company van, courtesy of SF Fights Fire.

The trip was the first of many made over the next two weeks by Page and his employees at F.E.E.D. Sonoma, a micro-regional produce aggregation and distribution hub in Sebastopol that connects dozens of small, organic farms and chefs and restaurants across the Bay Area.

Page knows the ins-and-outs of delivering large amounts of farm-fresh produce to different drop-off points. Thus, when he was asked to help streamline the connections between farms and the spontaneous kitchens erupting all over Sonoma County to feed fire victims, evacuees and first responders, Page’s answer was “Yeah, for sure, what else can we do?”

With its large walk-in refrigerators, storage capability and fleet of four delivery trucks, F.E.E.D. (short for Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights) transformed into a hive of volunteer activity. Donations poured in from small family farms and ranches locally and across California, including whole pallets of pastured-raised chickens from Root Down Farm in Pescadero and ground beef from Markegard Family Grass-Fed.

F.E.E.D. was the hub for all. These ingredients were then delivered to emergency kitchen operations run by the chefs at Backyard, which prepared and distributed 16,000 meals the week after the fire, along with Ceres Community Project, and Worth Our Weight. Page says the “communal” call to action in a time of unprecedented disasters was impossible to refuse.

“It was a grass-roots, multi-pronged effort,” he added. “Plenty of people around the county started cooking and handing out meals.” Ultimately, it came down to doing what they already knew how to do, but doing it really well and under pressure.

In Occidental, Kaelyn Ramsden started thinking about access to fresh fruits and vegetables in evacuation centers. As the school garden coordinator at Salmon Creek School, she knew the solution lay in procuring produce from the wealth of small farms in Sonoma County.

Why should disaster workers in evacuation centers and first responder camps have to rely on canned food imported from across the country to feed people in a place where the support for good, clean and local food runs strong?

First, Ramsden harvested as much kale as possible from her own garden, taking it to Ceres Community Kitchen, where volunteers were preparing daily meals for evacuees at Analy High School.

Within a couple of days, Ramsden had coordinated with Page at F.E.E.D. and a crew of volunteers to get the produce donations from farms into pop-up kitchens. It was her way of ensuring that people were getting the good, nourishing food she believed they needed in a time of crisis.

“There is no reason why if you’ve been evacuated from your home that you should be eating cans of beans and pesticide-sprayed garbage,” said Evan Wiig of the Farmers Guild/CAFF. “On top of having lost your house and belongings and nearly escaped death, suddenly you throw a bunch of crap in your stomach? The least we can do was provide them a healthy, wholesome meal.”

Wiig helped to coordinate food donations during that first chaotic week, as the fires still burned in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. People from the culinary world were calling to ask where they could get produce and ingredients. He started calling local farmers asking for donations.

“Of course, without a moment’s hesitation every single one of them started showing up to kitchens with deliveries, from New Family Farm to Red H to Singing Frogs,” said Wiig. At this point, Ramsden stepped up transportation efforts, coordinating volunteers to pick up donations so that time-strapped farmers could get back to the harvest.

Still, something wasn’t sitting right. Although farmers were offering donations without hesitation, Wiig knew sales were down 50 percent for farmers who already operate on slim margins. The large farmers market at the Luther Burbank Center had burned out, restaurants had closed and people weren’t going out to eat. Farmers were feeling the economic hit.

“I’ve learned that part of the recovery effort is to make sure that our local food economy is supported,” said Wiig. “I was pretty off-put when George Bush told people to go shopping after 9/11, but I do recognize that supporting our local economy during times of crisis is just as important as fighting fires.”

Wiig turned to the owners of Sebastopol restaurants Lowell’s and Handline, who had asked how they could help. He asked them to help raise money for what he called the “farm-to-emergency pipeline.” Through Thursday night dinner sales, they raised $10,000 used by F.E.E.D. to purchase food for emergency kitchen operations directly from local farms.

These donations were invaluable to Heather Irwin, a food writer at The Press Democrat who launched Sonoma Family Meal, a roving chef-managed disaster kitchen, while evacuated from her Santa Rosa home. The group served 70,000 meals in October.

“The idea was for chefs to create local and organic-sourced meals for people to take home, amazing food that nourished them and had dignity to it,” said Irwin. “One woman who had lost her home told me: ‘We had no kitchen, no home, we were scared. We got this meal, and it was so loving.’?”

With the help of Ramsden and farmer Caiti Hachmyer of Red H Farm, Wiig also set out to raise enough money to buy out the produce at the Sunday Sebastopol Farmers’ Market. By the end of the day, they had raised $800 to purchase as much produce as possible; Wiig walked out with about $1,500 worth of food, as farmers gave generously.

The goods were stored at F.E.E.D. and then driven to Franchetti’s in Santa Rosa, where chef and owner John Franchetti was preparing food for Sonoma Family Meals. Some went directly to the kitchen to be roasted for the night’s meals. The rest- squash, carrots, potatoes, onions - was bagged and handed out to those in need.

Once the immediate crisis was over and Franchetti had re-opened his restaurant, Sonoma Family Meal received nonprofit status and was awarded a grant from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund to hire a chef. Meal prep and distribution resumed ?Jan. 9, serving 25 families that had lost homes.

This article was originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Please read our commenting policy
  • No profanity, abuse, racism, hate speech or personal attacks on others.
  • No spam or off-topic posts. Keep the conversation to the theme of the article.
  • No disinformation about current events. Claims of "Fake News" will be delayed for moderation
  • No name calling. "Orange Menace", "Libtards", etc. are not respectful.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine