171031_NorCal Fires Heather Irwin-27.jpg

Heather Irwin is a writer and editor focused on food and dining for The Press Democrat and Sonoma magazine. Since the fires, she also runs Sonoma Family Meal, an organization that is helping to feed local, organic chef-made meals to families in needs.

When the fires happened, as a restaurant writer, there really wasn't a whole lot that I could do. I felt kind of silly going, "Restaurants are still open. Yay." And there were a lot of chefs asking me, "How can I help? What can I do?" They couldn't really take sheet pans of lasagna down to the Red Cross. And I figured there were lots of families out there who had lost jobs or were staying in hotels…who have all these needs. So, I thought why don't we put those two things together?

I told all the chefs that had offered food, “I'm going to be at Franchetti's Wood Fire Kitchen." They offered us their space so we can repackage all these big sheet pans that were coming in from San Francisco and other places. We had chefs from Single Thread, we had Feed Sonoma — they handle distributing the organic produce to restaurants. A chef [wanted to help] so he drove a van full of organic produce from Reno to our restaurant. By the time lunch was over, we’d served 800 meals and we were like, "Oh shit! What are we gonna do now?" So we made a bunch of phone calls. Guy Fieri's group brought us lots of meat. We cooked up more vegetables and just scrambled as hard as we could and got another 800 meals out that night.

We try to offer something with a lot of dignity and respect. People are like "I lost everything. I have nothing." It's really hard. They're just everyday people who lived in Fountaingrove or Coffey Park, who say "I never thought I'd have to ask for a meal." I had a friend come up to the line. I said, "Oh! Are you here to volunteer?" She said, "Well, I'm actually here for a meal." She had been working really hard during the fire and lots of people counted on her for news. And she was taking food to her family. [She] just broke down and said "I don't know what to do."

“We’re not asking for a FEMA card. We’re not asking you if you’re legally or illegally in this country. We’re simply saying, ‘If you have a need, come and get it.’”

A FEMA representative came to us a few days in and said, "This is an amazing program. And we really hope you guys continue to do this cause there's gonna be a need for a long time.”

I thought, "This is a really cute project. Maybe I'll do it for couple more days." And then it just exploded. We're not [able to keep] super accurate count because as fast as the food comes in, it goes back out. But we can keep track in terms of the number of pans that we use. And we know we've used at least enough to serve 60,000 meals up to this point. [Update: That number is now over 120,000 meals.]

In addition to people who are recently homeless, we also know there are a lot of people in this county who've never been served. A lot of the shelters are in really troubling times right now. So we're talking to everyone and asking: where are the hotels where a lot of people are staying? Can we deliver meals there? Where are the retirement communities that may not be served by Meals on Wheels yet? How can we deliver there?