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Heather Irwin, founder of Sonoma Family Meal.
Roman Cho

Boosted by Local Restaurants and Chefs, Here’s How Sonoma Family Meal Combats Hunger in Wine Country

Since launching after the Tubbs Fire, the nonprofit has expanded its mission with support from businesses including SingleThread and Cousteaux French Bakery

When Pauline Conway fled her home of 22 years on October 9, 2017, she had no idea she would have nothing to come back to. Like hundreds of people in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, she’d woken at 1:30 a.m. to an amplified voice exclaiming: “Get out now!”

“I didn’t take anything with me, I was in my nightgown,” she says. Eighty-mile-an-hour winds and dry tinder had turned a spark just north of Calistoga into a wildfire that raged into the largest city in Sonoma County’s wine country, incinerating more than 1,500 homes in Conway’s neighborhood. The Tubbs Fire, which decimated more residential communities after jumping eight lanes of the 101 freeway, ultimately reduced more than 5,000 structures to ash, making it the most destructive fire in California up to that point.

Weeks later, Conway recognized only a few pieces of pottery at the burn scar of the home where she’d raised four sons. While living temporarily at the Flamingo Hotel, the retired middle school teacher did discover one source of comfort: restaurant-quality meals being given away daily to evacuees. The meals were a community effort spearheaded by food writer Heather Irwin, who’d been blown off her beat at the Press Democrat. Irwin’s mom and grandmother had been evacuated and, like Conway, found themselves suddenly unable to cook meals.

At the same time, local chefs needed to do something with the contents of their walk-ins, otherwise doomed to spoilage due to power outages, and farmers harvested produce to protect it from the noxious smoky air, still thick a week later. So Irwin borrowed Santa Rosa restaurateur John Franchetti’s kitchen and asked chefs and farmers to bring both raw ingredients and already cooked meals to give away. “These chefs could take an acorn squash and make like 20 things out of it,” Irwin says.

She used social media to spread the word and donations rolled in from all over: bread from Cousteaux French Bakery, butter and cheese from Clover. A cannabis company loaned a refrigerated truck for pick-ups. Santa Rosa restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark, who lost their beloved Willi’s Wine Bar to the flames, kept two chefs employed to cook for the effort. Irwin branded the endeavor Sonoma Family Meal, an homage to the meal restaurant workers share before a shift.

Five years later, what began as this haphazard disaster response has become a well-endowed nonprofit fighting food insecurity in Sonoma County — thanks in large part to generous support from local restaurants. “Born out of fire relief, Sonoma Family Meal is now not only prepared for disasters but also providing essential food and training resources to Sonoma County,” says chef Kyle Connaughton of three-Michelin-starred SingleThread restaurant in Healdsburg, an early and consistent supporter who initially showed up with sheet pans of lasagna.

Equipment inside the new Sonoma Family Meal community kitchen.
Sonoma Family Meal

After weeks of using borrowed kitchens, well into the November rains, and serving what would amount to 20 thousand meals, Irwin got emergency nonprofit status from the county and set up a program to continue feeding 70 displaced families for the next two years — including Conway’s. “It became like a community,” Conway says. “I saw the same people every single week, smiling and giving each other hugs.” Counseling services were available, as were bouquets of flowers. Most evenings the organization served meals until they ran out of food, helped by an increasing cadre of volunteers. “I wanted people to have nourishing food that would make them feel taken care of,” Irwin says. “Fires don’t discriminate.

By the time COVID hit in Spring 2020, Sonoma Family Meal had weathered another emergency, serving 8,000 meals to those displaced by the Kincade Fire of 2019 with the help of hundreds of volunteers and dozens of chefs. Now those same chefs were the ones in crisis, their businesses momentarily crushed by the pandemic. While still working her full-time journalism job on top of serving an unpaid position as executive director of Sonoma Family Meal, Irwin was awarded a $1.3 million grant from the county. The organization used the money to pay farmers for their produce and to keep hundreds of restaurant workers employed at 20 different establishments, all cooking for those in need.

Duskie Estes, who runs the Black Pig Meat Co. food truck with her husband John Stewart, lost 250 events in 2020. Eventually, she accepted an executive director position at Farm to Pantry, a local gleaning nonprofit that harvests food that would otherwise go to waste. In 2020, she and her mostly volunteer crew provided Sonoma Family Meal with 17,000 pounds of produce that found its way into the 250,000 meals cooked for the elderly, low-income, and migrant farmworkers, distributed by nonprofits including Council on Aging, Corozan Healdsburg, and La Familia Sana. “All of us have to help meet the needs of our county’s food insecure,” Estes says. “I love that we get to work with all these nonprofits in a non-competitive way.”

Sonoma Family Meal

In a county where the median property value — $664,600 in 2019 — is nearly three times the national average, the wealth disparity can feel stark. According to the 2018 Sonoma County Hunger Index report, nearly one-third of residents, some 60 thousand households, can’t afford three meals a day. This is the reality being addressed by new Sonoma Family Meal executive director Whitney Reuling, a Sonoma County native with years of food policy and culinary experience.

With an operating budget of $440,000 in 2022, Sonoma Family Meal continues to expand beyond emergency relief, now providing meals to the Redwood Empire Food Bank’s weekly distributions of groceries in Petaluma. “I want to start with immediate food insecurity right here,” Reuling says. Reuling acknowledges the fortune of being “supported by industries that have direct contact with a large pool of potential donors” — including SingleThread restaurant, which gave the nonprofit $80,000 raised from their Gift of Giving diner donation program last year. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” Reuling says.

After borrowing kitchens for more than five years, Sonoma Family Meal now has its own 3,100-square-foot community kitchen, housed in a former seafood-processing plant. “It was a stinky abomination when we first looked at it,” says “pit boss” Kim Rothstein, who’s been volunteering with Irwin since week one. She managed the gutting and rebuilding of the kitchen, which houses a “tilt skillet” the size of a child’s bathtub, two hood ovens, three freezers, and four giant stainless steel work tables. Reuling gestures at pantry shelves stacked deep with dried goods and compostable packaging donated from local company World Centric. On one table sits a box of frozen packages of beef from Stemple Creek Ranch, on another a box brimming with Windrift Farm tomatoes. “We so badly needed a home,” she says.

Sonoma Family Meal executive chef Heather Ames
Sonoma Family Meal

The walk-in freezer — “the piece de resistance” Reuling intones as she sweeps open the inner plastic panels — is stacked with 800 servings of food, ready to go in the event of an emergency. Breakfast burritos, quiche, vegetable lasagna, stuffed peppers, meatloaf, chili mushroom frittata — all of it made by the only other full-time paid employee at Sonoma Family Meal, chef Heather Ames. Now that she’s stocked the walk-in, Ames is cooking for the group’s weekly family meal service, a CSA of sorts that feeds four people for $60 a week. The kitchen will also be available to rent as an affordable commissary space outside of regular Monday through Friday business hours.

Next, Reuling aims to develop culinary job training for teens and the formerly incarcerated, continuing to grow Sonoma Family Meal’s menu of services to the community. “After #MeToo and COVID, the hospitality industry has undergone a huge reckoning, and I believe it can continue to be a force for positive change,” Reuling says. “We want to help create a more resilient and inclusive food economy here in Sonoma County, to provide a place at the table for folks who might not otherwise have access.”

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