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A year after California's most destructive wildfire, many survivors struggle with food insecurity

A year after California's most destructive wildfire, many survivors struggle with food insecurity

Picture of Sarah  Bohannon
Investigating food insecurity more than a year after California's Most Destructive Wildfire
(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

If you’ve been following the news about the aftermath of 2018’s Camp Fire in California, then you’re aware that many survivors of the disaster are struggling with the effects of trauma, that the water in the town of Paradise is contaminated, and that the existing housing shortage in Butte County was exacerbated with an overnight influx of 20,000 displaced residents of Paradise and surrounding communities. What you likely haven’t heard from local or national media is that on top of all these problems, many survivors are also struggling with food insecurity.

These are survivors like:

  • Patti and James Stephens, who for almost a year lived in a small used trailer on a friend’s property with no running water, a tiny refrigerator that could only hold a few items and little money to make the 26-mile trip to the nearest grocery store. Before the small amount of help that was available to them dwindled, they received weekly boxes of food that was often expired and sometimes stale. The fresh food they were able to get often couldn’t be used because they no longer had a kitchen or cooking utensils to cook it, or it would rot in the summer heat because they had no refrigerator or air conditioning.

  • Terry and John Rubiolo, who are living on their burned-out property in the rural community of Concow, who — on their own — are delivering food to about 80 people three times a week because they know their neighbors are struggling and there are no social service providers helping with basic needs like food in the area.

  • Lorrie Peters Summers, who for more than a year, has been living in a hotel in Chico and told us through tears that she was worried about her health because she has to eat out for each meal — she doesn’t have a stove and can’t cook for herself or her family anymore.

Before the Camp Fire, 18.2% of Butte County residents were food insecure in 2012, and one in five residents lived below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Both of these percentages were higher than the state average, leaving us at North State Public Radio (NSPR) wondering how many in the area are food insecure now, after tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes — many living in situations like James and Patti, Terry and John, and Lorrie.

Hunger is often silent, which is why you likely haven’t seen or heard these stories, but with the help of the USC Health Journalism Impact Fund, NSPR will be taking a deeper look into whether or not the region is seeing a significant increase in food insecurity after the Camp Fire, how food insecurity is complicated by other issues survivors are facing — like trauma and increased travel times to school and work — and how this problem might be affecting various healing and health outcomes for survivors.

This multimedia project will feature an hour-long radio documentary and a series of web features that will explain the current state of food insecurity in the Camp Fire burn scar. Special focus will be placed on food insecurity in children and seniors, and we’ll look at which nutrition-assistance recovery programs and systems are working for survivors and which are not. We hope this reporting will help advance the public understanding of food insecurity after the Camp Fire and better inform long-term recovery needs after any type of disaster.

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