Trinity County is one of those places that doesn’t get in the news much, unless it’s wildfire season like it is right now. It's a beautiful, remote, rural part of northern California. It's also one of the state's most food insecure places, where many people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
I decided to travel to Trinity, to meet one man who helps feed them.
The sun has barely come up in the tiny town of Douglas City, and three men are almost done packing a couple of trucks with food.
“We’re loaded to the gills,” says Jeff England, director of the Trinity County Food Bank. He points to produce like cabbage, white onions and sweet potatoes, along with packaged and canned foods.
England’s the director of the Trinity County Food Bank. I hop into the cab of a 20-year-old truck with a rattling refrigeration unit, joining England as he begins his monthly food delivery run to the county's hungriest and most isolated residents.
He'll drive 230 miles today, 650 miles by the end of the week.
"When I make my trip, because of all the twisty, turny roads, I kinda have to take it a little bit easy," he says.
Too sharp a turn can upend the pallets of food he’s carefully packed for today’s 10-and-a-half-hour drive. It's over 100 degrees, and there’s no air conditioning in the cab. Out the windshield I see vehicles that have fallen off the side of the road, and thickly forested mountains on one jagged ridge after another.
"If it was just flattened out completely, with the mountains and everything else, it would be the size of Texas," he says.
'Without the food bank, you just go without'
We drop into a valley, to the former mill town of Hayfork. After a couple stops at senior centers, we come to the Solid Rock Church, where more than 50 people line up for prepared foods, produce, and special boxes for seniors. England cobbles together this food from a spider's web of local, state and federal programs.
Teresia Kirkland’s here volunteering, but she also collects free food which she often combines in casseroles.
“Without the food bank, you just go without,” she tells me. “I’m on Social Security, and after you pay all your bills, if you have an emergency -- if you have a flat tire or anything that needs to be taken care of -- you need to wait til the next month. By the fourth or fifth of the month, I’m broke. Can’t go nowhere, can’t socialize.”
“That makes for a long month. A long, long month,” chimes in Glenda Raines.
Both of these women say they used to supplement their budgets by taking items to a recycling center in Hayfork, but that’s closed now. Raines says, until recently, she and her husband were homeless, camping out by the creek.
“A friend let us stay in a garage made into a little cabin. I don’t know how long that’s going to last. I’m still considered homeless.” She’s happy, at least, to be off the creek and out of the sun.
Raines says she prepares the food she receives on a little propane stove. Her husband Gary approaches me to say he’s frustrated that there’s not more senior housing, and that a glut of marijuana growers coming into Hayfork are jacking up rents. He says he worked in the Hayfork sawmill for 17 years when it was still open. When he broke his back, he retired. Now he gets just over $800 a month in Social Security.
"Last month I got a $180 ticket for being homeless in the National Forest. I didn’t even know that was the law," he says, with a slightly bitter laugh.
He says he’s grateful for the food he gets here each month. “You get a can of this, a can of that. It’s better than nothing, but we should get more. I mean, this is America. Come on. We should come first. If we can help other countries, why can’t we help ourselves?"
More than 10 California counties actually have higher poverty than Trinity County, but Trinity is one of the state’s most food insecure places. To find out why, I head to what looks like the center of food abundance in Trinity County: the farmers market in Weaverville. Market manager Sue Corrigan is shopping for zucchini, tomatillos for salsa and onions her husband will make into onion rings.
As she points to one vendor selling tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, Corrigan tells me something surprising, “We don’t have a lot of farmers in Trinity. This farmer is our only farmer in the Weaverville area" -- the only local of about 10 farmers selling produce here.
“We needed to bring farmers in to bump our food source up,” Corrigan says.
Riding with Jeff England, I’ve already seen that most of the land here is too mountainous to grow much produce. Making matters worse, Corrigan says, years ago, much of the potential farmland was taken out of commission.
Her family had farmland here dating back to the 1830s. In the 1950s, Corrigan’s dad went away to college to study agriculture, but had to change his major.
“The government was taking our land,” she says, to build the Trinity Dam, part of the Central Valley Project.
“One of our last areas that was open enough to do farming, and they buried it with a lake,” she says, wistfully.
Corrigan says it’s all about priorities in Trinity County. “We’ve had three different rushes: First the gold rush, second the timber rush, and now the marijuana rush which, is called the 'green rush.'”
You can’t eat marijuana, she says. "The focus has been on other industries and not a food sustainable industry."
Braving Risky Roads
One more explanation for Trinity’s food insecurity? Isolation. I see this first hand as Jeff England approaches his most remote food bank drop-off spot. He maneuvers around most of the potholes on these bumpy, poorly maintained roads. Last year’s winter storms even blocked one of his routes.
"There was only one road you couldn’t get through,” he says. “Of course it was at about 5,000 feet and the snow was horrendous and people got stuck. It took me two months to get there and I brought two months’ worth of food."
He’s saying this like it was nothing, but England drove this old truck that doesn’t have four-wheel drive in the snow, on a closed road. State highway workers told him if he got stuck, he was on his own.
"I said, 'I have to go.' I slipped, lost traction, gained traction,” he remembers. “I just knew they needed the food so I decided to take the chance, and I made it."
“That takes a lot of guts,” says Lauren Turner. She’s come to the food drop-off at the volunteer fire department in Zenia, a tiny town on the border of Humboldt County.
“Coming up the back of the mountain, they call it Refrigerator Alley for a reason,” she says. “It gets pretty slick. So, we’re grateful. It’s not easy up here.”
In exchange for doing some computer work, Turner and her partner live on a friend’s ranch nearby. But where do they go to get groceries?
“Usually it’s 100 miles in any direction from here to a large town,” she says. That’s more than a two-hour drive, one-way, to Eureka or Redding. They only do that once a month. In between, they rely on the food bank delivery.
“We keep the canned good for times when we can’t get off the hill, and the fresh food, I get imaginative,” she says. “I like to take the veggies and cook them in fruit juice and then I like to put fish on top of them the last 15-20 minutes. Sometime we get frozen fish so I make a lot of one-pot meals.”
England says he and his team have more than doubled the amount of food they’re bringing into Trinity County in the last year. The food bank and Trinity County Food Assistance deliver one bag or box of food to 2,500 households each month. That’s 20 percent of the county. And they could do more, but their antiquated refrigerator and freezer are so small, sometimes they have to decline donations of perishable food.
“And we probably have the lowest operating budget in the state. Our operating budget’s about $41,000 a year.” He and his wife clean summer vacation homes to make ends meet.
England says the community here is incredibly supportive, but some people have complained that the food bank just enables drug addicted or homeless people.
“We don’t judge people, and those druggies have kids. The kids might not get food normally,” England says, but if the food bank provides, they do.
“I mean, if you’re hungry, you’re hungry," he says. "I don’t care who you are. You’re black, white, Indian, Mexican, fat, skinny, or from out of the county. If you’re hungry, you’re hungry."
That lack of judgement, it comes from personal experience. England says he’s been out of work before, "and I’ve struggled in the past, a long time ago, with some addiction problems. It just felt so good to be able to go to a place when you’re hungry."
He remembers that first meal in a soup kitchen.
“It was in a church. It was spaghetti, garlic bread and a salad,” he recalls, and they sent him and others home with cans of soup and chili for additional meals.
“A lot of people don’t know what it is to be hungry,” he explains, “but if you’ve ever been hungry, it’s a horrible feeling. You’re weak. You can’t do anything. You don’t have any ambitions. I’m so happy to be able to turn the table and be able to help people that might have been in my shoes before.”
He says, just look at the logo of the food bank, a person on a pedestal, reaching down helping someone else up.
Ariel Plotnick contributed additional reporting and research for this piece.
This piece was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting network, a non-profit, investigative news organization.