Lending a Hand Amid the Pandemic: Giving Groceries to Concow’s Camp Fire Survivors

Northwest  |  May 21, 2020
Pamm Larry buys various vegetables so that the Concow residents can have a more balanced food supply. Photo by Huan Xun Chan

Written by Huan Xun Chan
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Many inhabitants from the rural community of Concow in California had built a quiet lifestyle of self-sufficiency before the Camp Fire, farming on their land and eating fruits and vegetables they grew themselves. They enjoyed the tranquility that came with the remoteness and preferred to live a modest life among friends and neighbors.

The wildfire not only destroyed their homes, but also their self-sufficiency — their food supply — by devastating the local farms. After the fire, the residents had to consume time and purchase gas for grocery trips into the town. The increased daily life expenses created financial hardships for many families.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States. Tzu Chi’s Camp Fire disaster case management team learned from survivors that Concow residents have been trying to avoid making trips into towns to reduce the risk of exposure, and the possibility of bringing the new coronavirus back to the already struggling community. Beginning in April of 2020, Tzu Chi collaborated with Butte County Local Food Network, to distribute fresh food to Concow twice per week. The fresh fruits and vegetables are brought from farmer’s markets in Chico and delivered by volunteers.

Pamm Larry, the founder of Butte County Local Food Network, buys fresh vegetables and fruits at a farmer's market in Chico.

Pamm Larry, the founder of Butte County Local Food Network, personally knows many local farmers in Butte County, as she has been working hard to create a strong local food network to connect individuals who need food with the people who are growing it.

Larry shared that Concow residents have been having a very difficult time. “The main town that got burnt was Paradise, so a lot of focus has been on Paradise and not the other outlined areas.” She realized that not many recovery resources have been provided to Camp Fire survivors in Concow. “I did not realize, living in Chico, just how bad it was.” Larry also learned that the donated food received by Concow residents is often not fresh and tends to be less healthy. Therefore, she insists on buying organic food or pesticide-free food.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, local farmers sell their produce at farmer’s markets in Chico. Larry usually arrives one hour before the market closes so she can help the farmers with the unsold products. Additionally, farmers will sometimes donate products after learning the purpose of Larry’s shopping.

Some farmers donate their produce after knowing the good Pamm’s food delivery project is doing for those in need.

Phillip Arroyo Long is one volunteer who drives up to Concow for the food deliveries. After meeting with Larry at the market, he carried boxes of fruits and vegetables to his car and delivered them to Pines Yankee Hill Hardware. Arroyo Long is a local from Chico. Due to the pandemic, his work in Los Angeles has been brought to a standstill, and therefore, he decided to come back to stay with his parents. Upon discovering the volunteer opportunity, he readily took on the responsibility of dropping off the food in Concow.

Volunteer Phillip Arroyo Long delivers fresh food to the Concow community.

A lot has to do with work having slowed down so much and I have really nothing to do with my time, and there are so many other ways that you can get involved, whether or not it's paid because people need help. If I have the resources to do it, why not?

Since the first distribution on April 15th, an average of 23 families has benefitted from each distribution. As of May 2nd, there have been six distributions that have benefited a total of 385 individuals.

Larry stated that the distribution list is set up with a vetting process done by case managers from Tzu Chi and the local non-profit organization, From the Ground Up. This process helps to ensure those most vulnerable can get the resources they need.

April 25th was the first time Camp Fire survivor Matthew Smelser received the vegetables — like lettuce, beets, chards, turnips, and more — from the distribution. “The lettuce I eat fresh, the beet greens I cook, I like beet greens a lot,” he said. “The beets I probably won’t cook, I usually eat those raw. Chard, I will cook too, I will saute that.”

Currently, Smelser lives in a yurt as a means of temporary housing, and has a small gas stove. “It’s like camping. I have been camping for a year and a half.”

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