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Valley Vision Staff Cook Meals for Camp Fire Victims

In the immediate wake of the Camp Fire, several organizations arrived in Butte County to support those facing life with an overwhelming amount of uncertainty. World Central Kitchen, founded in 2010 by Chef José Andrés, was one of the first organizations on scene providing support. For the last several weeks, chefs around California and beyond have rallied to leverage commercial kitchen spaces in making a difference.

World Central Kitchen (WCK) made headlines previously when disaster hit Haiti and Puerto Rico, as well as during the Mendocino Complex and Carr Fires earlier in the year. They have established a reputation now as the tenacious non-profit known for being the go-to organization to feed thousands in the wake of natural disasters. When it became apparent the Camp Fire was going to be yet another wildfire for the record books, WCK made its way up to Northern California to set up a facility. With Paradise only a short drive away and so many people affected, the staff at Valley Vision immediately wanted to find a way to help. In less than a day Project Associates Sonia Duenas, Yzabelle Dela Cruz, and myself registered as volunteers and made our way to Chico, California the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

We arrived in Chico around 11 am and immediately took notice of the blackened hills and fire lines coming right up to the freeway pavement. The smoke was heavy, and not much could be seen past the few cars in front of us. In both directions we passed more than a dozen Cal Fire Trucks, dusty and grayish-red as they returned back down Highway 99, horse trailers packed with animals being transported to makeshift animal shelters, Red Cross disaster vans, pedestrian vehicles noticeably loaded with supplies, bags of clothing, and food, and regular families probably leaving the only home they’ve known. It was a leveling experience just coming into the area. However, once we arrived at the WCK headquarters, the tone instantly changed. What a few moments ago felt so dire, was replaced with a bustling group of cheerful and smiling WCK volunteers that immediately welcomed us and directed us to a station. The Red Cross had just arrived to pick up what was probably lunch, and there was a line of people loading up cambros and sack lunches into the disaster vans. After a quick tour of the facility and run down of tasks to be completed, we made our way across the parking lot to the kitchen to help prep food for the dinner shift. Chef Dominic Orsini, head chef from Silver Oak Winery, greeted us at the door and immediately led all three of us outside to a table with 5 large boxes of Spanish onions that needed to be sliced up for dinner.

“Can you cut onions?”

Slightly intimidated we each quickly grabbed an onion, rubbed off the outer layer of dried peels, sliced off the nubby little ends, and julienned the little herbaceous plants as fast as we could.

“Great! Get started”. And like that, we were off.

For the rest of the day, we were flying around the kitchen, working alongside the many other World Central Kitchen staff, the Silver Oak Kitchen team and other volunteers. As Kerrie Jacobson, a representative from Chef Tyler Florence’s team, was moving back and forth hastily making chimichurri sauce for the dinner meal and simultaneously making batches of quinoa, several of us were outside braising beef chuck on large paella pans. Time flew by as we shared stories about where we were from and why we had come to participate. We met several amazing people including Carrie, a massage therapist who had driven all the way from Santa Rosa to lend her hands, and Joe, a Red Cross organizer who had flown in from Connecticut to help with the relief efforts. Together we were able to prepare over 2,500 dinner meals for Camp Fire victims.

Returning to the car covered in sweat and kitchen debris, we couldn’t help but feel completely humbled and inspired by our time spent with World Central Kitchen. As we pulled out of the parking lot, we watched as the Red Cross vans departed down the road with the meals for delivery, hopefully to bring some comfort to those in need. The experience was one of a kind, and aside from the unfortunate circumstances, Sonia, Yzabelle, and I were grateful that we were able to participate in something so impactful.

Emma Koefoed is a Valley Vision Project Associate contributing to the 21st Century Workforce and Food and Agriculture impact areas.