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Standing Ready in the Aftermath of Disaster


When wildfires and hurricanes affected communities, support networks jumped in for the food insecure.

Though she had lost everything in the Camp fire, Therese Rubiolo returned to Concow, Calif., as soon as she could.

Ms. Rubiolo had started an organization three years before to feed and support homeless people in her community, so when she and her family were evacuated and left homeless by the 2018 fire, they knew they wanted to return to help others.

“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘I need my pots and pans to go back home and do my cooking,’” she said.

Her desire to feed her neighbors, paired with her roots in the rural area, prepared her to help this year, when California faced another devastating wildfire season and large areas of destruction made it difficult to transport supplies.

Ms. Rubiolo, 62, who goes by Teri, knew the pain of displacement firsthand. When she fled the Camp fire in November 2018 with her husband, granddaughter, a property caretaker and the family dog, her home, containing a lifetime of memories, including her eldest daughter’s ashes and art, burned to the ground.

The next January, Ms. Rubiolo and her husband returned to their community so they could restart their work nourishing others. “We knew that the need was going to be more,” she said.

Ms. Rubiolo’s group, I Am’s Garden, is one of over 200 affiliates that the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, based about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco, relies on to identify Californians who are food insecure and to distribute provisions. Part of the network of Feeding America, which is a beneficiary of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano became Feeding America’s disaster hub for California this year.

Though disaster relief has been a main tenet of the food bank for at least a decade, said Joel Sjostrom, president and chief executive of the group, the fire season has come earlier and has been more devastating over the past two years, prompting the need for more emergency food distribution, as well as different types of supplies.

To help those quickly driven from their homes, Mr. Sjostrom’s team developed “kitchen-free boxes,” which consist of three ready-to-eat meals, two snacks and water bottles for one person for one day. The needs have been so vast and the destruction so wide that the food bank began stocking cargo containers with kitchen-free boxes and supplies to bring to rural areas.

Ms. Rubiolo said one of those cargo containers provided to I Am’s Garden made a difference in her remote community, 90 miles north of Sacramento. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” she said.

In a neighboring state, another member of Feeding America’s network, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, has had to expand its disaster planning because of the wildfires.

“It was a very long, very active fire season, with fires in the size that we have never experienced before,” said Jenny Yeager, director of programs and community engagement for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada.

It relied heavily on partnerships and innovations like kitchen-free boxes as it worked to shift supplies and distribution sites to accommodate where people were finding shelter after evacuating. Among those partners was the HOPE Food Pantry, operating out of the Susanville United Methodist Church in Northern California, near the state line.

Referencing this year’s Dixie fire, among the largest in California history, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Charles White, said, “Our entire region has been in a train wreck.”

When the pantry began in May 2020, Pastor White saw it as a way to combat food insecurity in the area during the pandemic. Over the past two summers, the need to serve those affected by the wildfires became clear.

And the effects have not just been physical, Pastor White said. “We’re not talking as openly about the ongoing trauma as I think we should,” he said.

Dennis Roberts, the choir director at the church, and his wife, Maryel, said seeing friends in their rural area who had lost their homes in fires this year had been difficult. The Robertses were evacuated twice in August as a precaution. Though their Milford, Calif., home avoided damage, their utilities were affected for several months.

Mr. Roberts has found comfort in volunteering at the food pantry.

“I realized how good I felt helping,” he said.

Over 3,000 miles away, the balm of being able to help their own community amid disaster also propels Dale and Yvette Browne to continue work at their Sejah Farm in St. Croix, where they raise goats, sheep and poultry, as well as grow vegetables.

They lost their home and greenhouse in Hurricane Maria, and recovery has taken time. Four years later, they are still living in a container unit. Along the way, they have helped neighbors recover and rebuild, and have made plans to prepare for future disasters.

“As you do things, you get life lessons along the way,” said Mrs. Browne, 56. One of those lessons: “We cannot do that work alone when it comes to food security and food sovereignty in our community.”

An overwhelming majority of food in the Caribbean is imported, leaving residents vulnerable when weather disrupts the supply chain.

While food banks in the Feeding America network have adjusted their approaches to cope with natural disasters, the Brownes have been working with another beneficiary agency of The Neediest Cases Fund, World Central Kitchen, to help their hurricane-prone community.

The food supply issues after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean within weeks of each other in 2017 led World Central Kitchen to consider how it could help counteract these effects in future disasters.

Mikol Hoffman of World Central Kitchen said that to address immediate needs in 2017, the group began working with small farms on the islands. “Those were the ones that we started buying a lot of our produce from,” she said, “and who we kept supporting.”

As a result of those initiatives, in 2018, World Central Kitchen started the Food Producer Network, for which Ms. Hoffman is the director. The network assists local farmers in building resilient local food systems and strengthens food security through funding, training and networking opportunities.

When the network arrived in St. Croix the next year, the Brownes applied for a grant and acquired a large freezer-cooler unit and generator, allowing their farm to store food and to continue operations in times of emergency.

The Brownes share their storage space with neighboring farms, and they promote the practices they have learned and connections they have acquired. They are currently working to create a learning center to provide technical assistance to other farmers.

“It’s all about food security,” Mrs. Browne said. “That is my motivation. To get up and make sure at least I can feed someone tomorrow. And the next day.”

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online or with a check.

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