It takes a village to feed the hungry
Elizabeth Kemp started to cook for seasonal migrant vineyard workers out of temporary trailers next to St. Leo’s Catholic Church, and eventually co-led Sonoma Overnight Support.
Maité Iturri, a tri-lingual former principal, launched Food for All/Comida para Todos to supply and deliver basic needs to the Springs community and beyond.
Duskie Estes, a chef and Food Network star whose restaurant was flooded out, joined Farm to Pantry to distribute fresh produce to the hungry among us.
And Sonoma’s Haystack Farm started to grow 14 acres of produce just to give away.
What was going on?
Sonoma Valley is known as a lush, beautiful Valley of bucolic vineyards, big houses and refurbished little resort cottages, corporate leaders in hillside homes with views of San Francisco, and gourmet grocery stores and restaurants.
The Valley is also home to the people who work in the vineyards, build fences, clean hotel bathrooms, and many of whom lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also retirees on fixed incomes that don’t keep up with the pace of inflation, and those who are unable to work from physical or psychological injury.
With the rising costs of everything in 2021, we have many neighbors with low-paying but demanding jobs who still can’t afford to house and feed their families. They are left with the unenviable position of paying for rent, or paying for food.
In many ways, we have two Sonomas – the one depicted in the brochures, and the one based in reality, where families are hungry and increasingly reliant on the support of our many nonprofits.
After seeing migrant workers go hungry, Elizabeth Kemp, herself an immigrant from England, knew she had to help. A staunch Catholic, she ran a day care center in her home but saw her mission in life to feed the hungry.
She served on the board of Vineyard Workers Services (VWS), where she managed to procure trailers to house the workers who lived under bushes and bridges while they worked the harvest season. First stored at the late Neils Chew’s Dowling Magnet plant off Eighth Street East, the trailers were later set up on land owned by Hanna Boys Center just west of St. Leo’s Catholic Church. Kemp started cooking in St. Leo’s kitchen to help feed the workers who kept the vineyards going.
Members of St. Leo’s and other local places of worship started making sandwiches to distribute; they became known as the Brown Baggers, because the lunches were packed in brown lunch bags with a piece of fruit or cookie. The volunteers found that some of the sandwiches were left uneaten, and realized the workers from Mexico might more prefer comfort foods from home.
Jude Sales, manager of Readers’ Books and current board vice president of SOS, cooked with Brown Baggers from the start and also cooks for SOS.
“We feed day workers, people who have jobs but can’t afford rent and food, people with disabilities, and just plain hungry people. But we are seeing more women in their 50s on up,” she said.
She added, “Elizabeth (Kemp) started the soup meal at La Luz in 2008, which consisted of soup, salad, bread and dessert.”
At least 80 people came to La Luz every Friday night, and some older couples made it a “date night out.” Led by Kemp, the Brown Baggers also started to offer free Wednesday meals at the Sonoma Valley Grange (now Springs Community Hall), cooking breakfasts and lunches.
Eventually Brown Baggers found legal shelter under the umbrella of SOS, a nonprofit organization that also ran The Haven, Sonoma Valley’s homeless services center in a police station parking lot, which had to suspend emergency overnight support in its eight-bed shelter due to the COVID-19 pandemic and some objections to its location.
There have always been hungry people just about everywhere, but the need has increased in the past few years - and even weeks - in Sonoma Valley. In fact, Kathy King, executive director of SOS, reports that requests for breakfasts and lunches have increased by 25% from Nov. 1 through Nov. 15 this year.