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It takes a village to feed the hungry

Organizations that feed the hungry

Pantries:

* Friends in Sonoma Helping (FISH), friendsinsonomahelping.org

* Redwood Empire Food, refb.org

* St. Vincent de Paul out of St. Francis Solano, Tuesday and Friday, 1-2:30 p.m., 469 Third St. W.

* Farm to Pantry, farmtopantry.org

Grocery delivery:

* Food for All/Comida para Todos, facebook.com/FoodForAllComidaParaTodos

* Friends in Sonoma Helping (FISH), friendsinsonomahelping.org

Food for the homeless:

* Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), sonomaovernightsupport.org

* Homeless Action Sonoma, hassonoma.org

Food for the Ill:

* Ceres project, ceresproject.org

Food for seniors:

* Meals on Wheels/Council on Aging, councilonaging.com/meals-on-wheels

* Vintage House, vintagehouse.org

Grocery shop and deliver:

* Vintage House, vintagehouse.org

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.

Helping hands

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.

Rising need

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.

Like many places in California, Sonoma Valley has endured devastating wildfires, earthquakes, drought, Bomb Cyclones, floods, forced closures, illness and death due to the pandemic and the negative effects of climate change.

SOS’s statistics, which are based on questions asked of those who came to the Springs Hall for free meals, show that 37% of those who are seeking food reported that they are not homeless, 37% did not answer, while 25% are “self-declared homeless.” Of those in need of food, 41% of clients are women, while 43% of the homeless residents are Latinx. Most of those who come in for a free, hot meal are in the 26 to 35 age group. Of all diners, 84% are unemployed while 10% are working more than one job.

Of those who are homeless, 93% say they are from Sonoma Valley, and are down on their luck, such as those who have lost jobs or spouses during the pandemic. SOS Executive Director Kathy King said they are seeing more “food-deprived elderly.”

When Dan Kahn was down on his luck, with no place for his wife and son to live, he found solace in SOS. He learned cooking skills at Fresh Starts Culinary Academy in Novato and now coordinates both food services and volunteers at Springs Community Hall, where SOS pays $5,000 per month in rent to cook and feed those in need.

Having been homeless twice with his family, Kahn said, “When you worry about food, you take it. It’s important that the food not be empty calories.”

Sandy Piotter, who leads Friends in Sonoma Helping (FISH), likes to cite author Katie S. Marin’s book “Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries – New Tools to End Hunger.”

Marin defines what we now call “food security” as having access to “nutritionally adequate and safe foods; the ability to acquire acceptable food in socially acceptable ways, meaning not having to use emergency food programs, scavenging, stealing or employing other coping strategies, eating less, etc.”

Piotter confirmed that the thousands of people who had to wait for hours in their cars in line for food boxes during the COVID-19 pandemic were not getting food in what one might call a “socially acceptable way.”

According to Piotter, those who are hungry sometimes live in chaotic and unstable situations. Those who come to both FISH and SOS don’t always have much control of their lives or choices because of things like rising costs of food, utilities and gasoline, high rental rates and medical bills – all of which limit spending.

Hunger can be caused by job losses, an accident, an unexpected car repair, a medical need and the expense of medication.

Piotter likes to help volunteers at food banks in making sure recipients feel welcomed and dignified, trusting people to select the items they need. She and her volunteer colleagues at FISH try to help their clients socialize, building relationships and engagement with a world from which clients often feel isolated. She said they enjoy giving people confidence and a sense of control of their lives.

FISH purchased its small buildings on Highway 12 20 years ago from AT&T, according to Piotter.

While there is an informal and quiet network of food sources, Piotter is working to revive the local Food Roundtable to create a more formal system of sharing among organizations in this time of exceptional need.

Giving back

Patrick Collins, a volunteer cook at Sonoma Overnight Support, says that many of the people who are hungry and come to the Springs Hall “have had a stressful day, maybe every day. I am trying to make their day a little bit better and kinder, and maybe demonstrate leadership skills. I enjoy what SOS does and realize how blessed we are helping other people. Many of us never have to worry about a meal.”

As an assistant cook, Collins makes his much-anticipated specialty -- an “oatmeal bake” – every Friday for SOS clients. Collins says his “previous career” was in sales for an industrial company that specialized in automation technologies primarily for the semi conductor, biotech and life sciences industries.

“I went back to school later in life to earn a degree in business logistics which I have utilized in my work at SOS and I am having fun working there and am very impressed with what Kathy King has been able to do and scale up the program as the need has increased,” he said.

At SOS, part time staffers Shannel Usher and Nathalia Zavala sign in new guests and work as case managers, helping people who have mental health problems, might be in crisis or are victims of abuse. They see hunger as a basic need, especially if one is living below the poverty level. They are both astonished at the high quality of the food served at SOS by Kahn and chef Dawn McIntosh, who wanted to help after the restaurant where she worked closed during the pandemic.

Zavala, who grew up in Sonoma attending local schools, sees an increase in hunger everywhere, she even sees people she grew up with coming in for food. The goal of SOS is to make people feel comfortable, feel more connected to their community and fulfilled, knowing that some people just need a soft place to land on hard days.

Redwood Empire Food Bank

Redwood Empire Food Bank collects and distributes food to provide emergency food assistance to those in need to certain locations in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Their efforts are lifesaving to thousands of people. Help give back by donating canned fruit, canned chicken, peanut butter, rice, pasta, oats, dry beans and low sugar cereals to Whole Foods in Sonoma.

SOS gathers and buys food and is the happy recipient of donated food from many sources, including Redwood Empire Food Bank, Haystack Farm and Little Paradise Farm here in Sonoma. FISH estimates it will have passed out groceries to make 70,000 meals this year, while SOS will prepare 50,000 hot cooked breakfasts and lunches in 2021.

FISH benefits from donations of non-perishable foods given in annual food drives, as well as from Redwood Empire Food Bank and local service clubs. Recently it received two tons of canned food from Save Mart Foods, Broadway Market, Sonoma Market and the local Lucky market, rounded up by Sonoma Raceway.

Meanwhile, Food for All/Comida para Todos gets the necessary items, from food to feminine care, that it delivers twice monthly from a wide variety of donors, including online monetary donations from the community.

Farm to Pantry

Estes’ Zazu Farm+Kitchen restaurant was destroyed when it was one of many businesses to flood at The Barlow in Sebastopol. She reset her focus on helping to feed people in need including assisting chefs José Andrés and Guy Fieri cook during northern California wildfires.

A former Food Network star and frequent judge on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” Estes is now executive director at Farm to Pantry, a nonprofit headquartered in Santa Rosa, that welcomes volunteers to pick excess crops, even plums off a backyard tree, which are delivered to organizations that feed hungry people.

Haystack Farm

Haystack Farm grows vegetables and flowers simply to give away. In a peak week, Estes and volunteer “gleaners” (pickers) harvested 800 pounds of vegetables to donate and deliver to places like Sonoma Overnight Support. As recently as Nov. 10, volunteers harvested another 600 pounds and hope to even increase production through the winter.

Some of the flower bouquets go to La Luz Center where everyone who comes in for a COVID-19 vaccination gets a bouquet of beautiful and colorful flowers, which turns out to be a cheerful attraction. They also go to meal recipients of the Ceres Community Project which provides all sorts of support “beautiful and medically tailored organic meals made with love for those facing a serious illness like cancer, diabetes or congestive heart failure,” according to their website, Ceres.org.

Estes reports that from Haystack’s first planting in early May, Haystack farmer Jerome Cunnie and crew have produced 15,974 pounds of vegetables, which translates to 63,896 servings. The volunteers who pick the flowers and vegetables also drive them to their destinations, whether it’s the Ceres Project, SOS, Burbank Housing developments.

“We are helping people find dignity,” Estes said. “Our volunteers enjoy the instant gratification of harvesting food to give to people who truly need it. Gleaning is so rewarding.”

For Estes personally, “We love three hours of muscle work using our hands, like being a chef, but you get to get dirty and use your whole body.”

She and her husband, salumist John Stewart, own Black Pig Meat Co. and the Black Piglet food truck.

“The act of volunteering time to be of service to others is heroic,” Cunnie said. “Seeing the gleaners come together without knowing each other gives me a feeling of hope. The gleaners are one of my favorite parts of the job.”

For six years Cunnie ran the culinary gardens at Domaine Chandon and their now-closed Etoile restaurant in the Napa Valley, and had a popular microgreen growing business with his wife, Audrey, that served Bay Area restaurants and delivered to more than 70 residences.

Now that he grows food for hungry people, Cunnie said, “It makes me feel a sense of completion, warmth and joy. From high end restaurants to helping people in need was a hard gap to bridge. Haystack Farm made that happen.”

Haystack volunteer coordinators Amelia Belle and Bob Rudorf left their previous careers in real estate and wine sales, traveled, and came back to Sonoma and bought a laundromat in Napa. Through their love of food they met Estes and began by picking lemons in a large Sebastopol orchard when the owners couldn’t sell them during the pandemic.

That led them to a gleaning program at Farm to Fight Hunger in Healdsburg and they got hooked on picking and distributing food to people in need. Now they are the unpaid volunteer coordinators at Haystack Farm and find the work rewarding.

Belle illustrated her point by quoting volunteer Margaret Gokey, who often gets upset with drivers around Sonoma Plaza but finds that, “When I have been harvesting and am on my way to deliver food to those who really need it, the same weird tourist traffic doesn’t bother me. I just think whatever comes in front of me changes my whole life.”

Rudorf added, “We have learned that there is no reason for people to go hungry. We just have to figure out how to distribute it to everybody. We have retirees and young people volunteering at Haystack and we all sense that we now have to change the way we do things with food.”

Kay Austin, who divides her time between gleaning at Haystack and cooking at Meals on Wheels and SOS, said, “It is so satisfying. I grew up with 11 siblings and didn’t have much. Now I am good, and I truly love giving back. I like helping people and the looks on the faces of the people we help.”

Haystack’s spirit and generosity has motivated other growers such as Little Paradise Farm and SunRay farm to grow and give as well. The nonprofit encourages anyone with a fire escape, balcony, backyard, patio, or vineyard to plant a little food to share with those who are truly hungry. A friend has even offered to gather excess fruit next year from trees in his mobile home park that is too abundant for neighbors to consume. Farm to Pantry will come pick it up and distribute it where it’s really needed.

Mary Evelyn Arnold, former Sonoma Alcaldessa, volunteers as head cook at Sonoma Meals on Wednesdays, and at SOS on Thursdays.

“When you're hungry, nothing else matters. Not the arts, not education, not sports, nothing. There is no higher calling than to feed people,” she said.

Kathleen Hill is on the board of SOS and helps connect Farm to Pantry with organizations in need.

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