You most likely can’t imagine how many miles 29,028 meals might stretch if laid end to end.
Perhaps, however, volunteers and staff of The Salvation Army can, for that’s how many they’ve served to Northern California wildfire evacuees and first responders in just over a month.
In Napa for example, where by Sept. 19 the LNU Lightning Complex Fire had burned more than 363,000 acres since it started early in the morning of Aug. 17, evacuees consume 146 of those individually packaged, restaurant-quality meals every day at four hotels that otherwise would be closed due to COVID-19 constraints.
The breakfasts, lunches and dinners are prepared by students of The Salvation Army’s Napa Valley Culinary Training Academy, which normally aids those who have overcome homelessness and/or addiction.
To ensure protection from COVID-19, cutlery, napkins and clamshells that hold the food are all compostable.
Lt. Roger McCort, who helps run the academy, says that providing “basic necessities such as a warm meal and cold glass of water creates … at least for a moment, peace in the turmoil.”
When an evacuee is “faced with a thousand unanswerable questions,” he added, “having these needs met means you can focus more on the big questions and not spend your already strained pool of energy on decisions about food.”
In six counties in Northern California, Salvation Army workers currently provide just under 2,800 meals daily, with employees putting in 1,006 hours and volunteers giving 2,278 so far.
Helping are corps from Redding, which is serving 1,200 meals a day, Roseville, Auburn, Oroville, Yuba Sutter, Eureka, Chico and Sacramento.
Since Aug. 18, when The Salvation Army’s response to the fires started, sites have been staffed near the August Complex fires (which includes the Doe Fire) in Mendocino County — the largest wildfire in California’s history — and multiple other blazes.
Evacuees from those fires, including some who fled from Oregon, have been fed.
All told, more than 7,900 wildfires have burned more than 3.5 million areas in the state this year, resulting 26 deaths and destroying more than 6,200 structures.
Patrick McGinn, director of The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services, explained why the charitable organization’s effort is important: “We do this because we are blessed to have the desire, the heart and the resources to respond … We know that if we don’t feed, survivors may go hungry.”
McCort also noted that he’s heard “a number of grateful comments from people who were expecting to get a hot dog or some chili from a can, who opened their meal to find chicken marsala with polenta and a Caesar salad on the side — or some other elaborate creation.
“We may not be able to sit and talk to people at a disaster site like we used to, but we can still let them know they are loved by sending a message through the food we prepare.”