It happens so fast. In the blink of an eye, the forces of nature can upend daily life and destroy everything. For the Southern Californian communities affected by recent massive wildfires, top priorities are the immediate needs of basic necessities and beginning the process of rebuilding. Two food-focused non-profits have partnered to help address those needs. Together, they are tapping a network of volunteer chefs and using the power of food to strengthen the affected communities.
Robert Egger is the CEO of L.A. Kitchen, a non-profit that generates fresh meals for those in need, and provides inter-generational culinary training for underserved individuals. He’s also a founding board member of celebrity chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, a non-profit that brings together a network of chefs to help empower communities to rebuild after a natural disaster. Together, their organizations have partnered to help feed those affected.
A Model to Strengthen Communities
“So, we started here and we were jamming out food to send up to the emergency headquarters here in L.A., that was their command center,” said Egger. “Then the fire shifted north so, our great friend, Nate Moot, from World Central Kitchen flew in. He had been leading efforts down in Puerto Rico and he went up to Ventura and ended up hooking up with a great chef up there, and they found a kitchen in a church and activated the kitchen.”
That’s the model that World Central Kitchen has employed over the past year to address natural disasters across the country – seeking volunteer chefs and using abandoned kitchens to make meals for the affected community. By working inside affected areas, they help bring members of the community together to be an active part of the recovery efforts. It’s a successful model that Chef Andrés has implemented in disaster areas from Houston to Puerto Rico, and most recently in response to the fires in Southern California.
“All of a sudden people evacuate a town and there's nobody in the restaurants,” said Egger. “So, chefs start coming in to volunteer, and we start doing this kind of tag team thing where we have hundreds of volunteers making sandwiches, prepping food, and then we ship it up every day in refrigerated trucks up to where they would either serve it on the front lines, or put it into the meals they’re sending out that night.”
That’s what Egger finds most satisfying about the work they do -- they are not just supplying food. They are helping folks begin the process of rebuilding by getting people working together, side-by-side, to feed their neighbors and support their community.
“There’s one guy up there whose actual home got affected by the fire, so he and his wife, and baby had to leave. So, here's this guy already got his own personal life all messed up with this fire, yet he's in there organizing chefs up in the community. This is what we lovingly call the power of food. It's not just gas for the body, it's a super way to bring communities together.”
The Power of Food
With an assembly line of culinary talent available from volunteer chefs and students in his training program, Egger’s organization is able to take donations of fresh produce and process it into nutritious and comforting meals. They’ve already made over 28,000 meals for the Ventura County fire relief, transforming cases of vegetables like bok choy and kale into delicious dishes like orange chicken with bok choy, and a kale salad with sesame peanut dressing.
“Yesterday we put together this kale, cauliflower, blueberry, and pomegranate salad,” said Egger. “So, the best part is, unlike so many emergency reliefs where you're just sending out MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) and things, what we're trying to do is get together really beautiful meals and healthy meals at the same time.”
Serving a freshly prepared meal to those who have experienced devastation is a heartfelt and gratifying way to help make a difference. No wonder Egger refers to it as the power of food.
Other chefs, restaurateurs and food organizations have also recognized that power to help those in need. Chef’s like Andre Gomez of Porch Light Latin Kitchen in Atlanta have set up collection areas for food donations to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
Award-winning restaurant, State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, is donating proceeds from the sales of its signature “world peace” peanut muscovado milk to benefit Sonoma County fire relief. And organizations like Peanut Proud, have donated thousands of jars of shelf-stable peanut butter to victims of various natural disasters across the Southeast to help provide nutritious and satisfying meals.
Not only do these efforts go a long way in delivering basic necessities to those who need it most, but they also provide the comfort in knowing that even when in the face of devastating loss, there is a community of support to help with recovery.
“I was up [in Ventura] the other night and ended up at this big synagogue that was like a staging center for people to go and see their homes,” said Egger. “People were coming in just shell shocked. But, just having a bagged lunch ready for them... man, it's truly amazing to see people at this level of anguish, yet the tears that they cry are over the simple idea that someone's up there making something for them.”
To find out more about how you can help, go to http://www.lakitchen.org/
Click here to find out more about how peanut butter helps in natural disaster relief.
*Images courtesy of L.A. Kitchen and Robert Egger