Diane Cox and Lizzie Peyton from Sebastopol volunteered to help prep and wrap meals for World Central Kitchen to feed emergency responders and locals in need as the Kincade Fire raged in Sonoma County. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
It’s been a trying week for everyone fighting the Kincade Fire, or impacted by evacuation orders and power outages in Sonoma County. A hot, free meal may not heal the larger crisis, but it does help heal the heart.
World Central Kitchen, the non-profit started by Spanish celebrity Chef José Andrés ten years ago, was in Sonoma this past week. A volunteer army from across California mobilized to help the organization cook and deliver more than 27,000 hot meals.
The magic starts at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where chefs from the North Bay, San Francisco and beyond plan and execute lunch and dinner menus for an ever-shifting list of local requests, as dynamic as the wildfire itself. Celebrity chefs Tyler Florence and Guy Fieri were just two of dozens who’ve volunteered to cook.
Chef Jason Collis of Ventura County was one of four “relief leads” who organized this volunteer army of roughly 50 people as they loaded just-cooked meals for hundreds of diners into aluminum catering trays and packed those into personal cars and trucks for delivery.
Collis started volunteering during the Thomas Fire, the 2017 wildfire that burned more than 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. His story mirrors that of many who work for World Central Kitchen full-time: a volunteer stint that quickly became a full-time job in disaster relief.
"When I'm not responding to emergencies, I'm setting up different protocols and relationships on how we could source food and equipment in different areas that we go to, all over the world."
The catering company Collis runs with his wife is working with World Central Kitchen in Southern California this week preparing meals for those affected by the Easy Fire.
World Central Kitchen employs 25 people, including ten specifically focused on responding to disasters all over the world, from the Bahamas, to Indonesia, to California. That describes the recent itinerary of Ramiro Arevalo, manager of relief operations, whose job is to figure out where and when to deliver the meals.
"You know, food is universal. It’s memories. It’s hope," Arevalo said in between a constant stream of texts and phone calls apprising him of changes in demand and desired staging areas for meals.
"With the Paradise Fire, we knew the destruction that happened and we knew the long-term displacement. Here, the numbers are changing so fast, we have to make sure our ground team is out there finding all of the areas that have gaps, that people maybe didn't know about or forgot about."
Identifying where emergency responders eat is the easy part at any wildfire. But where do you find locals in need? Especially when they're not showing up at local shelters in great numbers?
"We're a small organization in the grand scheme of things, but we pack a pretty mean punch. We do that working with the community, whether it's on the volunteer level, or drivers that know the area to to execute the delivery of the food, or even the local purveyors that work with us. So, yeah, it takes a village," Arevalo said.
That's where somebody like Alma Bowen of Nuestra Comunidad, which supports families with emergency translation services, resource referrals and housing assistance, comes in. She functioned as Arevalo’s community liaison for Cloverdale.
She knows who could use a hot meal, and also how to let hundreds of people know when and where to line up: community halls, churches, fairgrounds, assisting living centers, even apartment complexes.
"These guys are freaking awesome. I love them," she said of the World Central Kitchen operation. With Bowen's help, the organization was able to find and feed senior citizens and farmworker families impacted by the fire and power outages, as well as emergency personnel.
The Kincade Fire’s initially prompted the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people, the largest ever in Sonoma County history. At the fire’s height, more than 3,200 people were registered at the 16 shelters established across the North Bay and San Francisco.
But even those who didn't evacuate were affected. Much of the region was without power for days, and the temperatures drop steeply at night in late fall. Speaking of the situation before the power returned, Bowen said, "They can’t go home and just cook their own food. And all the stores locally are wiped out right now. And with people returning home, that’s even more the case."
"We believe in feeding everyone," Arevalo said as he tore from one meal drop to another, finishing this particular dinner run at 9 p.m.. "Longer tables. No walls. No one should be excluded from a hot meal during a time of need."
The idea is so compelling, people fed meals come up to ask how they can help World Central Kitchen deliver the next meal. Local restaurants, retailers and farmers want to help, too.
"I love how quickly the food community in SF rallies," wrote Sam Mogannam of Bi Rite in San Francisco. " I went up there [last] Sunday with three other members of my team and we worked with Tyler Florence and the rest of the World Central Kitchen team to prepare 3,000 meals for those that have been displaced. I also sent communication out to dozens of chefs in SF with the contact info for World Central and for Sonoma Family Meal in Petaluma, run by Heather Irwin. Our farmer, Layla Aguilar, was delivering produce to Heather Saturday afternoon and helping some of our farmers in Sonoma/Napa find a home for their products, as they needed to secure a location for the food so it wouldn’t go to waste."
Full containment of the Kincade Fire is expected November 7, but the Kitchen team will likely be gone after Monday. They pack up when the last shelter closes, and head to the next disaster.
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