Story by Dani Burlison, Photos by Caitlin Childs

During the 2017 North Bay fires, Heather Irwin came up with what she refers to as a “silly idea” to help feed displaced families. Irwin, a local reporter focusing on Sonoma County’s restaurants, started getting phone calls from some of the area’s chefs. Because many restaurants were closed—and because Red Cross shelters and other emergency organizations can’t take prepared food donations—the chefs were seeking ways to help the community. Together they created a simple solution.

“I really didn’t think it would be anything that would last more than a couple of days. And I didn’t know how it was going to go or if anybody was going to get involved. And then it exploded,” says Irwin. “We ended up doing over 100,000 meals just during the Tubbs Fire.”

To Irwin’s surprise, Sonoma Family Meal has certainly lasted more than a couple of days.

Until December 2019, Sonoma Family Meal provided up to 75 families with free weekly meals, including many seniors and those who lost homes and were displaced from Journey’s End Mobile Home Park.

“What we continue to see in Sonoma County is so many people that were doing okay just kind of fell off the economic cliff [after the fire],” says Irwin. “And as we continue to have disasters, they’re falling further and further behind, which is just heartbreaking to see.”

After the 2017 fires, west Sonoma County was hit with devastating flooding in early 2019. And later that same year, the Kincade Fire scorched a large swath of the northern stretch of the county. During the Kincade Fire, Irwin says that Sonoma Family Meal helped local farmers and ranchers stay in business by purchasing $14,000 of raw materials for Sonoma Family Meal chefs to prepare and distribute to evacuation centers and to first responders. Over the weeks of the Kincade fire, Sonoma Family Meal volunteers distributed about 8,000 meals.

Now they’re faced with a new disaster with the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and shelter in place ordinances have increased need for thousands around the county at the same time that restaurants are struggling to keep in business, and Sonoma Family Meal has stepped in to feed the community again.

With donations and grants—including one from Community Foundation Sonoma County—and a network of restaurants and nonprofits, Irwin says they’ve served 11,000 meals to locals in need from late March through mid-May.

In collaboration with nearly 30 local restaurants, Sonoma Family Meal is also working with nonprofit organizations to create a wider reach to people in need. Restaurants are paid per meal, and the food is then distributed through drive-up locations in collaboration with organizations like Council on Aging. The agencies let Irwin and her team of volunteers know how much food they need and Sonoma Family Meal delivers the prepared meals in large buffet pans. The food then gets repackaged and distributed to clients.

Additionally, some restaurants deliver directly to sites. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa has partnered with The Astro Motel, to house some of their homeless clients while their shelter has limited acccess. Through a partnership with Sonoma Family Meal, the Astro Motel residents receive three cooked meals a day during their stay.

Dawn Zaft, owner of Santa Rosa’s Criminal Bakery has been creating between 105-175 breakfast meals for residents at The Astro every week. Zaft had just opened a second smaller, 155 square foot location for her bakery café in Sebastopol just two months before social distancing and shelter in place went into effect and she says her business was hurting.

“I was strategizing around worst case scenarios and getting migraines,” says Zaft. “I was feeling concerned about my employees who are like family. I love my employees.”

Zaft says that fear about the viability of her business was high before the partnership with Sonoma Family Meal began. She had scaled back hours at both bakery locations while they continued serving coffee and baked goods through the windows at both locations.

“I was talking to other business owners and everybody was kind of figuring out their fallback plan,” she says.

Now she says that the Sonoma Family Meal stipend she receives has helped her pay her rent and keep her business running.

“It feels good to be participating in something like this because it’s got so many facets of how it is helping,” says Zaft. “I’m just grateful for it because it’s a really smart program.”

Like Zaft’s bakery, partnerships with Sonoma Family Meal has helped other local restaurants unable to operate at full, pre-coronavirus capacity, stay afloat.

“It doesn’t help their entire restaurant staff,” says Irwin. “But it’s helped them make it through the last couple of months until they can get on their feet and do takeout and maybe soon be able to have some people in outdoor spaces.”

Irwin says that there remains some uncertainty looking ahead. She wonders if Sonoma Family Meal should slow their pace to be prepared with what some worry might be a second wave of outbreaks that create more need in the community, particularly while fire season looms in the not-so-distant future.

In the meantime, they continue feeding families and continue keeping local restaurants in business.

“Most of the restaurateurs that we’re working with are saying that this has saved them because when we started in March, no restaurant had any idea what they were going to do,” says Irwin. “So I want to acknowledge that [Community Foundation Sonoma County] has helped us in such huge ways to be able to continue this.”

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