Jenny Lowrey couldn’t contain her excitement when the semi pulled into Yankee Hill Hardware on July 31.
“Oh my god. Seventeen-hundred families are going to get free food today,” she said. “Ah, I love this!”
That day, Lowrey and her organization From the Ground Up Farms facilitated the distribution of 22,000 pounds of fresh food from the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program to more than a dozen other local organizations and groups providing food assistance across Butte County.
Lowrey is the co-founder and executive director of From the Ground Up Farms, which has been offering no-cost food to locals in need since 2013. Her Concow home was one of thousands destroyed by the Camp Fire, and since the disaster the organization has served as a connector and catalyst for support and relief for survivors from outlying areas within the burn scar, including Concow and Yankee Hill. The all-volunteer organization typically offers educational activities and events regarding nutrition, gardening and other life skills that have been on hold since the coronavirus shut down California.
That morning, the Yankee Hill Hardware store was a flurry of activity. Shoppers dropped by to browse at the store, while volunteers (some also fire survivors) lifted and secured hundreds of boxes of food into truck beds and trailers in the parking lot. From there, the food was transported to low-income households and others in need during the pandemic, including Camp Fire victims, homeless folks, seniors and indigenous Native American families.
A key component of the program is its offerings of fresh produce, including onions, tomatoes, plums, apples, lettuce and potatoes. That’s why Lowrey—and many organization representatives picking up food that day—were so thrilled.
The reality for so many Camp Fire survivors, Lowrey said, is one of picking and choosing between vital resources.
“Do you choose healthy food or do you buy dollar store groceries so you can put $20 into the generator?” she said, referring to those living on properties without power.
Nancee Ellsworth, the coordinator of the food pantry for First Christian Church of Paradise, explained that it’s not easy for survivors to secure fresh food. The church has been providing rations to 150 families every weekend Most of what the congregation has been able to offer are pantry items that are canned, preserved or have a long shelf-life.
This giveaway also was significant because, like many other locals providing food assistance to fire victims, Ellsworth has noticed a surge in food insecurity due to the pandemic, she said.
“There’s so much need. I thought maybe it’d get better as time went on, but that’s not happening,” she said. “This [resource] is awesome. Our families don’t have access to a lot of fresh food. … It’s such a treat for our families.”
While Ellsworth loaded up provisions that day, across the parking lot, Wallace Clark, leader of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu Indians, worked with volunteers and other tribe members to load 200 boxes of food into the back of a truck. Clark told the CN&R that the rations were going to the tribal office in Oroville, where they would then be distributed to Konkow Maidu families scattered across the North State.
Clark emphasized the importance of this donation for Native American families, which experience some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the U.S. The pandemic has compounded their need.
“For all of us, it’s a really big deal, because a lot of people aren’t working right now and unemployment benefits are running out,” he said.
The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which was created in response to the pandemic, has distributed more than 35 million boxes across America, with plans to distribute a total of nearly 60 million by the end of August. The program may be extended beyond then, but that depends on its success and available funds. The USDA has spent $1.2 billion so far, and aims to purchase up to $1.47 billion on additional 21.3 million food boxes through this month.
The program starts with the USDA purchasing fresh produce, dairy and meat from national, regional and local distributors that have been significantly impacted by restaurant, hotel and other food service business closures. These distributors then package the products and transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations and nonprofits.
The Yankee Hill distribution event was a community effort, Lowrey said. She heard about the program from Butte County Supervisor Tami Ritter, who connected her with Josh Cook, of California Senator Brian Dahle’s office.
Ritter told the CN&R she had worked with Cook, Dahle’s chief of staff, on Camp Fire emergency housing projects. When Cook told her the office was looking for communities in need for this program, the Concow area immediately came to mind, Ritter said. Many Camp Fire survivors are living there in RVs and other temporary homes without power and water, she added.
“I felt like if the distribution happened in Chico, then we probably weren’t going to see it go to the areas most in need, so connecting them to Concow seemed the best bet,” she said.
Lowrey said when she was given this huge opportunity to help distribute fresh produce on a scale she’d never attempted before, she told herself, “I have to figure it out.”
She began making phone calls and assembled a roster of just over a dozen agencies. On July 31 over the span of about two hours, 22,000 pounds of food had left the parking lot of Yankee Hill Hardware and were en route to the neediest families in the county.
“I am blown away at how well it went!” Lowrey told the CN&R later. “The agencies all showed up as scheduled, the volunteers poured in even with masks required.”
From the Ground Up has forged other connections in order to provide healthy food to hungry families. For example, the organization partnered with Chico Natural Foods to provide $50 and $100 gift cards to Camp Fire-affected families. Lowrey also coordinated with the Butte County Local Food Network, which now delivers fresh produce twice a week to Concow. From the Ground Up facilitated a partnership with Chico farmers’ markets, and now offers surplus produce to families in Concow.
“We’re just trying to find really innovative ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables to these families,” Lowrey said.