Wildfires and the Pandemic:
The Need for Food

HPHR Fellow Jackie Leung

By Jackie Leung

Red Skies & Smoke/Ash Everywhere

Salem, Oregon. State Capitol shroud with smoke & ash, resulting in a red hue in the sky

July 5, 2020. When the Oregon forests began to burn. It started with the Oregon Fire Chief declaring the beginning of fire season. At the time, the chief warned to be vigilant due to the amount of dry brush, low rain fall, and lack of moisture. Fires began to spread. 



Then, in early September, after ongoing and new uncontrolled wildfires throughout Oregon, Oregonians woke up to a terrifyingly scene – blood red skies. The night before, there was already smoke looming in the air, and ash swirling as we walked from our car to our home, tracking in more as it floated into our homes. For a moment, it seemed as though we were wearing sunglasses or visors that changed everything red. It was eerie – the skies appeared to be soaked in blood, the need to drive or walk outside was next to impossible because vision was distorted, and the amount of smoke and ash in the air made it difficult to breathe much less see at a distance. Wearing a mask or glasses did not help because the ash and smoke burned our eyes and the mask, while reducing the amount of particles breathed in, felt suffocating with the thick smoke.

Desperate for Food & Resources

It was a terrible time. Oregonians panicked. It was hard to see and more difficult to breathe. In the midst of a pandemic, the community was panicking. Not only were people out of work from the pandemic, people were out of work. and many needed food. The regular food pantries were not enough. Through FDA food box donations, the local food share received an influx of food boxes containing fresh produce, dairy, and meats. The food share and my non-profit established a partnership: donating food boxes to community members. A total of 125 food boxes were available each week to distribute on Friday mornings at a local church. 


At least two weeks were cancelled during the wildfires due to the amount of smoke and ash in the air. The below photo is from a food box distribution drive, in the background are grey skies from the smoke from the fires burning Oregon.

Food box drive

Food Box Distribution Continues Until 2021

Micronesian Islander Community (MIC) Distributes Food Boxes

From August 2020 until October 2020, and then from March to May 2021, the partnership continued, and we were able to distribute 125 boxes each week, over the course of five months, over 2,500 boxes were distributed to hundreds of people. Volunteer, staff, and volunteer availability was limited, and we continued to follow pandemic protocols including mask wearing, disposable gloves, utilizing hand sanitizer, and maintained social distancing protocols. In addition to food boxes provided by the local food share, we also purchased local foods for our communities, offering weekly cultural food bags to go, grocery gift cards, masks (cloth and disposable masks), and hand sanitizer. 

The need was endless and continued to grow. The busiest times were during the summer to fire season, then because we were not provided additional boxes, we had to stop the first distribution. When the opportunity to distribute again resumed in March 2021, we began to do so immediately. The response was just as great: as these events were drive thru (meaning: the drivers stay in their vehicles, we will bring the boxes to them), drivers would be waiting at least 30 to 45 minutes before our events started. By May, the panic slowed down and we were having difficulty handing out all the boxes when before it would be given out within 45 to 50 minutes. At our last distribution event, we managed to give away 120 boxes, with 5 boxes that we personally drove to community members who could not attend and needed delivery.

While the food boxes helped a small number of households, it helped a number of Oregonians have groceries. We hope to continue this again. Our community needs it. 

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No references in this article; but I do recommend learning more about the organization, Micronesian Islander Community.
Webpage: http://www.micoregon.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oregonmic

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