Nine months after fires ravaged Sonoma County, hundreds of people still line up each week, seeking assistance from an emergency food distribution program supported by the region’s largest food bank.
Ripple effects from the fires forced the Redwood Empire Food Bank to stretch its resources with its Station 3990 program — a network of mobile, drive-through distribution centers held 12 times a week across seven cities. Since the first center opened outside the food bank Oct. 14, the program has doled out $4 million in food, serving 28,000 households and 110,000 individuals, according to data from the nonprofit.
And, the need isn’t going away, though the organization is strapped for volunteers and has seen as much as a 20 percent increase in demand for some programs, said Director of Programs Allison Goodwin.
In the early days of the disaster, food was provided to 1,200 households weekly. Now, 500 households still seek help each week, and it’s not clear how the fires will impact hunger long term, she said.
“We thought we’d have some sort of robust immediate need. We weren’t really sure what the ongoing need would be,” she said. “The reality is yes, there’s an ongoing need … we would have expected it to drop off a little more dramatically than it did. It continues to be robust, week after week.”
The effort isn’t the only emergency program that’s extended beyond early days of the fire. Others include Sonoma Family Meal, which formed Oct. 14 to feed fire victims, and a Catholic Charities program to connect those impacted by blazes to vital resources. A so-called second wave of victims — those who deferred seeking help but now find they have no other choice — also are emerging, nonprofit leaders say.
The program cost the food bank $1.1 million between October and April, CEO David Goodman said. The organization’s annual budget is $8.5 million, he said.
Early on, donors were told their dollars would be used to help direct victims, but also the broader community struggling from lost work hours, feeding and housing displaced people or those otherwise in need.
“We will feed people that are impacted by the fire, that’s what Station 3990 is going for – that’s the purpose of the program,” Goodman said. “We can also tell you other people will be helped at the same time … when people show up and we say ‘no that’s not for you, you go away hungry,’ it’s an untenable situation. We would never do that.”
In January, food bank leaders will determine the program’s future, he said. Goodman compared the fire to the recession — a life-changing event robbing many of perceived security.
“In the blink of an eye — from 10 p.m. to midnight in October, suddenly people went from never needing help to needing help,” he said. “The same holds true for when you walk into an office and get laid off in the blink of an eye or if you fall from a ladder and you’re incapable of helping yourself.”
Under the shade of leafy trees at Santa Rosa’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park Thursday afternoon, more than 100 people received food from the program, including bright orange carrots, frozen chickens, rice, beans and cans of soup. The walk-up site opened just three weeks ago because of the need in the area, which is near a compound of FEMA disaster trailers housing fire victims at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.