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Local food editor starts meal program to feed neighbors in need

After the Tubbs Fire roared through Sonoma County in 2017, wiping out neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and destroying nearly 3,000 structures in the city, Heather Irwin watched the chaos unfold and knew immediately what she could do to help.

Irwin, a food editor for a local newspaper, started a meal program at a local restaurant to feed those affected by the fire. She named the program Sonoma Family Meal, and rallied chefs from the Sonoma County food community together to cook meals for displaced families, first responders and those otherwise in need.

Irwin said:

“We had people pull up to our distribution spots, people who were living out of their cars. To see my friends and neighbors show up in the lines was very tough. … The man who later became our attorney showed up and got food from us.”

Four weeks after the Tubbs Fire, the nonprofit had cooked and served more than 200,000 meals.

But the string of disasters in Sonoma County had just begun. Sonoma Family Meal volunteers cooked 8,000 meals for those displaced by the 2019 Sebastopol floods and the Kincade Fire. From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic through March 2021 the nonprofit served 250,000 meals, including for those in desperate need of food after the 2020 August Complex Fire.

Prior to the pandemic, volunteers cooked meals in facilities with large kitchens, or at venues like the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the nonprofit has partnered with restaurants to cook the meals, and it has paid $1.7 million to its partner restaurants to do so.

To qualify as an SFM restaurant partner, the business must cook using local ingredients and employ enough workers to properly handle the meal packaging and distribution. The nonprofit must also know and trust the chefs.

Irwin said:

“The restaurants tend to be well known, like John Ash & Co. and The Girl & the Fig.”  

A spokesperson from The Girl & the Fig said the restaurant supplied SFM more than 23,000 meals last year.

Sonoma Family Meal also provides food to various local organizations, including family groups, women’s shelters and underserved communities struggling through emergencies. To determine who is eligible for food, the nonprofit relies on information from Sonoma County public agencies.

Irwin said:

“That way, we don’t have to case manage.” 

SFM funds its operations through grants and donations.

Irwin said:

“Food is not just calories. It nourishes people’s souls,” Irwin said. “I see people who say they got food from us after the Tubbs Fire and it makes me cry. It’s what makes me want to continue the project.”

This story was first published as part of the Inspire Me series on, an affiliated nonprofit site supported by Bay City News Foundation. 

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