As shifting climate conditions continue to impact communities across North America, a quiet movement is taking shape that could help reframe how we view the responsibilities tied to disaster response.
And this development is predicated on a basic philosophy that most of us already embrace in our daily lives: food nourishes, and nourishing food feeds a community spirit.
Last year, as Puerto Ricans were struggling to overcome the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, Chef José Andrés and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, arrived on the scene. Andrés, best known at that point for his sustainability initiative and his success in introducing Spanish tapas cuisine to the American culinary scene, marshaled the help of local cooks, business, celebrities and politicians to feed residents "in every corner" of the island.
This month, Andrés' focus was California and specifically Mendocino County, where the Carr fire has cindered more than 225,000 acres and uprooted thousands of residents. World Central Kitchen's "Chefs for California" has taken steps to ensure that there is nourishing food for both wildfire victims and first responders -- and food that not only fills bellies, but that local residents can identify with.
Hence the signature approach of Andrés, who has made cooking in remote settings, often without local electricity, a simple art form. Just as in the small towns of Puerto Rico where local chefs cooked up thousands of plates of the local favorite pastelon, World Central Kitchen treated Redding fire victims to dishes they would most draw comfort from: favorites like jambalaya, chili, hand-made pizza and chicken tacos, "a meal that is like home, that's made with love."
And initiatives like World Central Kitchen -- backed by chefs that represent dozens of restaurants and businesses across country -- could become the signature stamp of disaster relief in the future.
Another nonprofit, Operation BBQ Relief, which grew out of the catastrophic effects of the Joplin, MO tornado in 2011, is also helping to ensure that displaced residents and first responders have access to quality meals. The nonprofit has taken a slightly different approach by engaging corporate sponsors like Butterball Turkeys, Yeti and Blue Rhino to provide the resources for on-site food preparation, often where there is minimal access to electricity or services.
And this is far from the first wildfire disaster scene that World Central Kitchen or Operation BBQ Relief have visited. Both have amassed a long history at this point of transforming devastated neighborhoods into community networks through volunteerism and hyper-local initiatives.
Last fall Andrés coordinated efforts with L.A. Kitchen, an innovative program whose tag line is "neither food nor people should ever go to waste," to provide emergency support for firefighters and victims of the California wildfires that hit Napa and other areas of Northern California. In doing so, he not only harnessed the expertise of accomplished chefs, but helped to teach L.A. Kitchen enrollees, many of whom were ex-convicts or former drug users who were learning how to restart their own lives, that there is value in giving to fellow people in need -- including those who may live hundreds of miles away.
As one L.A. Kitchen student succinctly put it, "I can look over to my left, look over to my right and at the end of the day, I know I am not the only one that needs a help up."
It's a message that carries particular importance as we wrestle with the impacts of climate change: Businesses and NGOs carry their own unique recipes for rebuilding resiliency and can transform a humanitarian effort to a community partnership for success.
Images: USFS Pacific Southwest Region 5 (Flickr); World Central Kitchen
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.