Inside Sonoma Family Meal: Chefs to the rescue
It was October of 2017 and the Sonoma County wildfires were raging.
Heather Irwin, the dining editor at Sonoma Media Investments (owner of Sonoma Index Tribune, The Press Democrat and other local publications) was sitting at the dinner table with some family members who had been displaced by the fires. They discussed the difficulties they imagined so many were facing - people thrown out of the comforts of their own homes, some suddenly without work, and many with additional friends and family under one roof. Her normal stream of food writing assignments had halted; with most restaurants temporarily closed and the impending fire dangers uncertain.
'Chefs were calling me,' recalls Irwin. 'They wanted to help.'
That night as Irwin and her loved ones sat around the table talking, an idea was born.
'I thought, 'what if we could create family-style meals that were hearty and nutritious, made with lots of love?'' said Irwin.
Her years of experience immersed in the food world meant she had countless connections with Sonoma Valley chefs, restaurants and farmers.
Irwin decided to start what she describes as a 'rogue nonprofit,' appropriately named Sonoma Family Meal. It didn't take months of planning. Instead, it came together quickly, out of sheer necessity. Initial funding came from independent private donors and was later supplemented by the county's emergency fund and out-of-state donations.
'This was planned as a one-time thing for the Tubbs Fire,' said Irwin.
The nonprofit continued to support displaced families over the next two years. And, just as the needs were winding down and people's homes were rebuilt, the Kincade Fire hit in November of 2019. This time, not as many homes were destroyed, but there were still many people in need; mostly fire-evacuees staying in shelters and first-responders.
Just a few short months after the Kincade Fire relief wrapped up, the COVID-19 closures began in mid-March.
Again, Sonoma County was hit hard, but this time, in new and unexpected ways.
When the devastating fires swept through in 2017 and again in 2019, the nation's eyes were on wine country. Generous donations poured in as people clamored to help from afar.
But when COVID-19 closures happened, the rest of the nation was in the same boat. The pressures of jobs lost, restaurants closed, families with school-aged children home, and seniors isolated, were felt by all. For many, just getting a warm meal on the table each night was an immediate struggle.
Sonoma Family Meal worked quickly to ramp up efforts again, coordinating with its connections at 18 restaurants and 10 nonprofits. Donations and deep discounts from local dairy, cheese and meat purveyors poured in.
'By April 1, we were getting hundreds of meals out a week,' said Sondra Bernstein, owner of Sonoma's farm-to-table eatery the Girl & the Fig and its catering company the Girl & the Fig Caters.
'We're so grateful to have the work,' said Bernstein. 'Grateful to keep the kitchen going. Buying food from our purveyors. Keeping those things moving, because the trickle-down effect on the community is huge.'
Sonoma Family Meal (SFM) is able to pay several local restaurants a nominal fee to allow them to afford their food costs and staff preparing the family meals. SFM also employs one chef who works out of the donated Luther Burbank Center's kitchen space. The nonprofit itself is purely volunteer-based.
Irwin even worked with celebrity chef Guy Fieri to feed several thousand hospital workers in Santa Rosa last week.
More locally, SFM is currently distributing more than 3,000 meals per week at several pick-up locations in the Valley; currently at Vintage House senior center and at La Luz, according to Lisa Janson, food security liaison for the City of Sonoma.
'We leave it up to the organizations distributing the meals to determine the meals go into the trunks of the people who need them most,' said Janson. And, so far, the demand has been high, typically running out within 15 minutes.
While SFM, along with their partner restaurants, has the capacity to produce far more meals, the funding is running low. They recently had to cut one of their Boyes Springs pickup locations.
'Sonoma Family Meals has successfully secured funding for the senior population,' says Janson. 'But other demographics are lacking the funds. We are constantly working to identify vulnerable parts of the population.'
'At this point, the need far outweighs the resources,' said Irwin. 'We are providing almost 10,000 meals a week right now across the county and would love to provide meals to everyone in need.'
The food the restaurants whip up is not just the bare minimum. They prepare meals that fit with Irwin's original vision - family-style, aesthetically-pleasing, and all complete with a protein, starch and veggie. Meals are packaged up to serve four people, although the organization is working on creating a two-person option that will begin in the coming weeks.
'People are getting good food, at a time when they need it most,' said Jeff Tyler, owner of Palooza Brewery & Gastropub in Kenwood, who helped out with the cooking for several weeks.
Palooza is putting the 'comfort' in their family meals, with dishes like spaghetti and meatballs with caesar salad, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans, and roasted chicken with jasmine rice and sauteed vegetables.
Chef Jeremy Zimmerman of the Girl & the Fig said they are keeping it fun and mixing it up with every meal. Some of his recent creations were pork adobo with chile verde, salisbury steak, and chicken tinga with black beans and roasted vegetables.
The money SFM has paid out directly to local restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis, means dollars stay in the Valley. Keeping purveyors, farmers, meat and restaurant staff afloat during these unpredictable times.
What is next for Sonoma Family Meal?
'Like most other agencies, we are pivoting for the longterm,' said Irwin. 'March through May were fairly reactionary, as we tried to serve as many people as possible and address the huge numbers of unemployed, which was an obviously unsustainable model. As we move forward, working with the county, we are looking toward a long-term plan that will focus attention on those most in need and allow us to operate at least through August, if not longer.'
She said that as people go back to work, the focus will be on seniors and those who remain food insecure.
'We are so fortunate to have the amazing restaurants we do here in the Sonoma Valley,' said Irwin. 'It's community feeding community.'
[Sonoma Magazine is a sister publication to the Sonoma Index-Tribune.]