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Food insecurity was already bad after the Camp Fire. Then COVID-19 hit.

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Food insecurity was already bad after the Camp Fire. Then COVID-19 hit.

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A volunteer serves food during a community meal event for the one-year anniversary of the November 2018 Camp Fire.
A volunteer serves food during a community meal event for the one-year anniversary of the November 2018 Camp Fire.
(Photo by Philip Pacheco/Getty Images)

I’m sitting in the studio, headphones on, mic fader up. The question: “How would you define the current state of food insecurity after the fire?”

“I’d have to say there is no food security in the area right now,” the source says.

I’m standing outside of a church that has weekly food giveaways, mic in hand, wind screen on. The question: “How much is your monthly food budget?”

“Fifteen dollars. Actually, $15.50, I think,” the sources says.

Talking on the phone, recorder is on, birds are heard in the background as the man sits outside of his trailer. The question: “How has a lack of access to food prevented your ability to recover from the fire?”

“It really triggers my anxiety and depression, and when I get that way its even hard for me to get out once a week to go and get food,” the source says.

These were just some of the responses my colleague Christian Solis and I received when we started our project looking into food insecurity and access after the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California history.

Our plan was to create an hour-long radio documentary that followed the lives of three fire survivors who were experiencing food insecurity in order to learn about what challenges they were facing in obtaining food after the disaster. We started our reporting by talking to organizations that provide food resources in the fire’s burn scar in hopes of getting a better understanding of the food landscape, and if there were any specific demographics who were experiencing food insecurity at a greater level.

To further our reach in the community, we also set up a table at various locations and asked people to fill out a survey we created that included questions like: “What are the barriers that you and/or your community are facing in terms of accessing food?” and “What questions do you have about food access and/or food recovery after the Camp Fire?” This method of tabling and surveying was new to me as a reporter and I was surprised at how responsive survivors were to us simply being in their community. We also created a Facebook page to ask questions and post resources. We had six months to do our reporting, and by the second month we’d already conducted more than 10 interviews and two tabling sessions. We were off to a great start.

Then the pandemic hit, and the entire project came to a halt.

Overnight I went from reporting on why people were still reeling from one disaster, to reporting on the beginning of another. Instead of continuing to focus on what’s working and not working in food recovery after the Camp Fire, I was now scrambling to put out as much information as I could on COVID-19. What did scientists currently know about the virus? Should people wear masks? How many lives did models project we would lose in our area? Were our hospitals prepared? How would the most vulnerable get necessities – like foodand medication – without going out of their homes?

For those in the Camp Fire burn scar, the pandemic was a disaster upon a disaster. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fire survivors we’d spoken with just weeks before and how they were already living on the margins after going through a devastating and painful event only a year before. What would this new crisis mean for them, and how would we get back to telling their story?

After months of intensive reporting, we were able to come up for air in mid-May. At that time, we came up with a plan with our fellowship mentors to get the original food project finished. We decided to keep our July 1 deadline, but we’d scrap the Facebook page, as we hadn’t had time to gain an audience for the group. We’d change the idea of following a few survivors closely to talking to more survivors remotely to keep both our sources and us safe during the pandemic. We’d drop the idea of the long documentary and instead create a series that we could drop into the daily COVID-19 Special Program we’d created during the pandemic.

It was a good plan, and it worked.

Christian and I took one month to revisit the audio we had collected months earlier and to obtain new interviews to learn how the pandemic was exacerbating food insecurity in the Camp Fire burn scar. We took the last two weeks to put it all together. In the end we created five 30-minute episodes exploring hunger during COVID-19, specifically looking into the organizations trying to help; what survivors say they need; how food insecurity is affecting the communities of Paradise and Magalia; how food insecurity is affecting the community of Concow; and why food insecurity isn’t better understood after a disaster.

It wasn’t the exact project we set out to do, but it was a deep dive into how food insecurity was affecting multiple communities within the Camp Fire area, and how organizations and community members were trying to help increase food access in the midst of another disaster.

Here a few of my biggest takeaways:

Create and reach out to community partners — We were successful in this project because we had built relationships with organizations and community members who were working in food recovery. Not only did we interview them, we asked them to be partners in the story by relaying how the story was progressing and asking them what they wanted to know from the reporting, as well as connecting organizations and community members with similar goals and missions to each other.

Meet people where they are — You have to get out into the community. Even if you’re reporting with restrictions‚ such as those imposed by the pandemic — think creatively about where your sources are located. One of our reporting methods was surveying. When the pandemic hit, we could no longer table, so we had to start thinking about other ways to reach people. I ended up being connected with the director of an online resource guide that’s part of a larger collaboration working on long-term recovery after the fire. This director had the phone numbers of 10,000 Camp Fire survivors. Her team texted a link to our survey to the numbers and we received around 200 responses.

Find and utilize mentors — Veteran journalists know what they’re doing. They’ve worked with reporters from all over the state, on all types of projects and it’s likely they’ve seen similar to the challenges to what you’re facing and can help you come up with solutions. Had it not been for our mentors reminding us that we had already done a lot of reporting we could use before the pandemic hit, and helping us see our project as not an addition to the daily COVID-19 program we were producing, but something that could instead be part of the program, I don’t think we would have had the bandwidth to get the project done. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective.

Be flexible – No matter how much you know the story you want to tell, or how much you plan, setbacks happen. The key is to not let them derail you. Go back to your overall goal, figure out how you can do things differently, but still reach it. Whatever you do, keep moving forward.

It’s OK if it’s not perfect — Our final project was not the project I had envisioned. There were voices we weren’t able to bring into it, and we had to do most of the reporting remotely. As a result, the audio quality was not always pristine, nor did it include sound-rich features, but it still sounded good, and overall it still embodied what we had hoped to achieve — to learn more about the gaps in Camp Fire survivors’ access to food, and to give voice to those lacking this basic necessity after living through a traumatic disaster — and now facing another.

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