Two years ago, several neighbors in Ashland quickly mobilized a response to the Almeda Fire by organizing the preparation and delivery of thousands of daily meals to displaced residents in the Rogue Valley. That community-led effort has since evolved into Rogue Food Unites, an Ashland-based nonprofit with a full-time staff and a contract from the Oregon Office of Resilience and Emergency Management to feed current and future wildfire victims in five counties in Southern and Central Oregon. In September, Rogue Food Unites launched a new program that offers produce, meat and eggs purchased from local growers and made available for free at weekly farmers markets held in Medford, Talent and Phoenix. Amber Ferguson, the co-founder and executive director of Rogue Food Unites, joins us to talk about using food to provide comfort and a sense of kinship while planning for the next disaster in the Rogue Valley and beyond.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Two years ago, a handful of neighbors in Ashland quickly mobilized a response to the Alameda Fire. They organized a preparation and delivery of thousands of meals to displaced residents in the Rogue Valley. That community led effort has since evolved into a nonprofit called Rogue Food Unites, with a full time staff and an expanded mission. Amber Ferguson is a cofounder and the executive director of the nonprofit. She joins us to talk about their work in the Rogue Valley, and beyond. Amber Ferguson, welcome.
Amber Ferguson: Thank you.
Miller: How close was the fire to your house?
Ferguson: The fire started about three blocks from my house.
Miller: But my understanding is it didn’t actually burn your house. What happened?
Ferguson: It went north. It did not burn our house at all, it went the other direction.
Miller: What was your first response to the fire in terms of the help you figured you would provide?
Ferguson: Because my home was spared and most of my immediate community, we chose to bear witness and show up how we knew best, which was in hospitality. We provide comfort through food. We chose to take time to align with local restaurants who were all showing up to provide meals as quickly as they could. And we became kind of the mediator between restaurants and service to fire survivors.
Miller: And what exactly were you providing to people?
Ferguson: Meals. We coordinated with upwards of about 100 different local food businesses to produce three meals a day for months on end, and are still continuing to provide food support to those that are still without permanent shelter in Rogue Valley.
Miller: How many people were you able to help in those initial months?
Ferguson: Thousands, upwards of 2,000 people.
Miller: Of all the needs that a survivor of a wildfire or some other natural disaster has, what role do you think that the food that you’ve been providing people plays?
Ferguson: I believe that food is just the first step in the process of healing. And for us to do that, it was just a simple comfort of something that people that were worrying about the loss of all of their belongings, their home, their cars, their other comforts, that we were able to show up consistently and provide.
Miller: Is the food that you were providing, and that you’re still providing, different from the food that say the Red Cross or FEMA or other nonprofits may have been providing over the years?
Ferguson: Yes. We worked to create nutritional specs that our restaurant partners all worked with. We worked to create culturally specific meals to serve the demographics that were affected in our communities. And those meals were made with heart and they were served hot and at appropriate times and consistently.
Miller: And some of those last things are different from what the Red Cross or FEMA or whoever might offer?
Ferguson: Yeah, generally the Red Cross does a kind of MRE, meal ready to eat style meal. And they are not culturally specific and do not vary from meal to meal.
Miller: When the immediate aftermath of the fire had passed, was there a time when you and your partner sat down and said “what are we going to do now?”
Ferguson: We moved very quickly. It was like getting on a wave and riding it. And we quickly worked to raise enough funds to support a day’s worth of meals. And then from that was another day’s worth of meals. And so we always paid all of our restaurant participants to produce the meals. We were able to get a short term contract with Operation Barbecue, as well as with World Central Kitchen, and then with the American Red Cross because we were doing the work that they were intending to also do. They were able to support our mission. And when the Red Cross was able to move out of our region in their food mission, it was passed off to the Oregon Department of Human Services, ODHS. And they called and continued to partner with us.
Miller: So how has the work that you’re doing now evolved?
Ferguson: We are seeing two plus years out from that disaster, and people are still without permanent shelter and are suffering greatly from trauma that has not been able to be addressed. So we are still showing up for them in several different ways. We have a program called a Solidarity Card, which is a remote reloadable Mastercard that’s limited to food purchases. Clients now have choice in what they would like to eat. This has been for the last year plus. They are able to spend their money at any participating food business, so grocery stores and restaurants.
Miller: Almost like your own version of food stamps or EBT. But this is something that you’re managing yourselves in partnership with with different food providers in the area.
Ferguson: Correct. And there’s less limitation than the EBT, they can purchase what they want.
Miller: What was the idea behind that, giving people this card that gives them the ability to directly buy food as opposed to having the model purely be you and your partners have created meals or foods and you give them out?
Ferguson: After a year of deciding what people were going to eat three meals a day, it felt like the right thing in their own recovery to give them choice and autonomy. I can’t imagine being told what to eat every meal for a year.
Miller: My understanding is you’ve also been working to create what’s essentially a free farmers market. How does it work?
Ferguson: We’re calling this program Neighbors Unite or Vecinos Unidos. The intention is to lower and remove barriers for our community to commune over something as simple as food. So the hope is that affluent community members shop with those that may need more support, and we are able to get to know each other and form a bridge.
Miller: It’s a kind of pay as you can? And people who have the means pay full price for tomatoes, and other people can get the tomatoes for free?
Ferguson: It is no cost for everyone. If people would like to provide a donation, we welcome that.
Miller: How has that been working?
Ferguson: It’s amazing. It is so, so, so fun. And if you are ever in southern Oregon, I would highly recommend coming to it. It is equally about joy and community, as it is about food. So we have a very long line of people, and everybody is dancing and having such a great time together. And we have a personal shopper and bilingual staff to support the program. And we are able to do this currently with our own reserves from our partnership from the state. It’s quite an expensive program, but one that we would like to see continue indefinitely.
Miller: How do you personally gauge the impact of the work you’re doing?
Ferguson: We have personally heard stories from people that say that we have saved their lives because we continue to show up, because of our consistency and kindness.
Miller: With climate change exacerbating wildfires and droughts and floods, how do you think about the work that you’re doing going forward?
Ferguson: I think that we have a real opportunity to continue learning what it is to be resilient, and then learning what it means to be prepared so we are not caught flat footed for the next disaster or crisis that comes our way. So we have many programs that we’re continuing to work on, building our own commercial kitchen, and producing our own style of MREs, for such an event like the Cascadia Event, which might leave us unable to drive to our communities that need support. I could elaborate that forever, but we want to stand up and we won’t be able to sit down until we’ve been prepared.
Miller: So are you currently making MREs and then stockpiling them somewhere?
Ferguson: We are not yet currently doing that, but that is our plan. Currently we are building out a commercial kitchen and working with local chefs to do some recipe development and preparation for that.
Miller: Things that arguably will be both shelf stable but also maybe tastier than what, say, the army is making?
Ferguson: Yeah, using regionally sourced ingredients, produce, protein, dairy, and creating restaurant quality MREs.
Miller: Amber Ferguson, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate your time.
Ferguson: Thank you.
Miller: Amber Ferguson is the co-founder and executive director of Rogue Food Unites.
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