Community in the Wake of Wildfires

By Alicia Loebl, FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member ’21

The Phoenix-Talent School District in Oregon has faced unprecedented challenges this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased flexibility by district staff and families to provide a safe and valuable learning environment for all students. Students have been managing the shift to distance learning and many parents have been juggling constant changes in schedule. Nutrition services shifted to provide meals for pickup to families to support the necessary service of school food. The ability to cope and adapt to an entirely novel educational system has been such a feat for all involved in our school community.

During the first week of school in the fall of 2020, this community experienced catastrophic wildfires. It was recorded that 80% of the families at Phoenix Elementary lost their homes. Many of these families were already struggling due to challenges of the pandemic. The district considers 100% of the families at Phoenix to be affected by the fire due to the stress of evacuating or knowing their family and friends lost homes. The aftermath of the fires led to an increased sense of community, with groups working together to feed the members of our community who needed assistance the most. Rogue Food Unites began organizing meals from local restaurants. The restaurant El Tapatio dedicated countless hours and supplies to create a place for families to get the things they need and coordinated assistance with federal programs.

Almost eight months post-fires, our community is still in need, and the schools and local non-profits have been stepping up to fill in the gaps. Rogue Valley Farm to School was able to adapt a program put in place to support those struggling due to the pandemic to be able to support fire victims as well. In collaboration with the Phoenix-Talent School District, Rogue Valley Farm to School got to work to begin distributing Farm to Family boxes. These boxes were extremely successful in the summer of 2020 with USDA funding to be able to feed thousands of people in the Rogue Valley. The boxes contained excess produce that farmers would normally be selling to restaurants and were given out for free at schools to families in many different school districts around Southern Oregon. This program was unable to continue without additional funding and ended just before the beginning of the next school year.

In the wake of the wildfires, the district got to work with Rogue Valley Farm to School to be able to provide for their community. Beginning in January, as many other aid systems were beginning to move out of the area, families had access to 150 free boxes of produce every week to be picked up at Phoenix Elementary and Talent Elementary. Rogue Valley Farm to School partnered with community liaisons to make sure the boxes were going to those who needed them the most. The school contacted families who they knew were deeply impacted and created systems for them to receive a box, even if they could not come directly to pick it up. It has been amazing to see the community collaborate on distributing boxes to where they will be most needed, with some rockstar community members being willing to take hours out of their day to pick up boxes and distribute them to displaced families in housing far from the school itself.

Due to the creativity and collaboration of dedicated partners, this program is still in action and has been supported by so many local organizations who care deeply about seeing their community nourished and fed. I have felt so lucky to have the opportunity to hand out boxes each week and see the excitement of families picking up a box with a new produce item they have never tried before. Each box goes out with a “Food for Thought” guide to engage families with nutrition and provide produce-based activities for children. To date we have distributed over 2,000 boxes with 600 more going out in the next three weeks. We hope to continue and expand this program to support not only our school community, but also our agriculture community and countless others around the Rogue Valley. 

FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member Alicia Loebl was selected as a runner-up for the 2021 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $1,000 prize for her service site, Rogue Valley Farm to School in Ashland, OR. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.

Read more from the 2021 Victory Growers essay contest: