Founded in 1988, Food For Thought is a true grassroots organization, conceived around a kitchen table, and dedicated to the proposition that access to nutritious food offers fundamental support to people with HIV.
This organization, which the New York Times has said is perhaps “the hippest” food bank around, exists in the small Northern California town of Forestville, a community with a population of less than 3,000. The staff and volunteers take pride in delivering quality services with healthy doses of compassion and caring.
Although rural in spirit, Food For Thought was born in response to an urban need.
Located about 60 miles north of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a growing gay population, Sonoma County felt the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
To understand why this largely rural community felt such an impact, it helps to understand a little of the area’s history:
In the late 1800s, the communities along Sonoma County’s picturesque Russian River in Sonoma County became popular vacation destinations, giving rise to resorts and summer cabins. In the 1870s, railroads were built to support the area’s burgeoning redwood timber business. The railroads connected to Sausalito, where the timber could be ferried across the mouth of the bay to San Francisco (this was before the Golden Gate Bridge existed). One unexpected effect of the timber industry was the increase in tourism to the Russian River area. In the summer months, tourists came by the trainload to stay in the resorts, buy lots and build cabins, and enjoy the area’s hopping night life. In short, timber moved out on the train and tourists moved in. In the 1930s and ’40s, the area was renowned for its nightlife and dance halls, which attracted young people from all over the country to vacation on the river’s beaches and dance the nights away to such bandleaders as Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey.
The area thrived until after Word War II, when more sophisticated travel options, in the form of automobiles and air travel made other, more glamorous, vacation areas easily accessible to people. The Russian River lost its luster. The dance halls closed and the resorts fell into disrepair. Summer cabins lay idle.
But a renaissance began in the late 1970s when gay men in the San Francisco Bay Area discovered the river’s charms. One gay resort opened in the town of Guerneville, and then another. By the mid-1980s many of the original summer cabins had been sold and rehabilitated. By this time the AIDS crisis was gaining momentum in the Bay Area, and many men were moving to the Russian River area where they could find inexpensive housing, a beautiful natural environment, a sense of community, and relief from the pressures of the city.
In 1988, a Guerneville woman, Betsy Van Dyke, noticed that her neighbor, a single gay man with AIDS, was looking more and more frail. She was concerned that he wasn’t getting enough to eat, and might not even have enough money for food. She purchased groceries and left them on his doorstep.
Food For Thought has a long tradition of calling our volunteers “Food Fairies”. Betsy was the very first Food Fairy. She realized that her neighbor John wasn’t the only person in the area affected by AIDS and in critical need of food. So in August of that year, a group of people gathered to discuss ways of providing this nutritional support.
A non-profit was born, and the group began finding ways of collecting food and raising money — two things we’re still doing like crazy today. The first food drive happened at the Sonoma County display of the NAMES Project quilt. The resulting truckloads of food seeded the first pantry. Volunteers came to help sort and distribute the food. The project outgrew its borrowed digs and moved to its own storefront. Betsy, as director, became the organization’s first employee, and eventually one of the first volunteers, Stewart Scofield, became her first official hire.
The need for services continued to increase, and a campaign began to build Food For Thought its own home. In 1999, the organization moved to the site where the food bank is still located, surrounded by organic gardens, in a functional solar-powered facility with a welcoming client service area, a walk-in cooler and freezer, a grocery store-style set-up, and room for offices and meetings.
The organization’s “old timers” report there has always been a slightly magical quality to Food For Thought, a quality that continues to exist today. Vision, dedication, and serendipity have all helped build the food bank. From the beginning, the organization has enjoyed tremendous support from the community in the form of food, money, and volunteers. The success of Food For Thought speaks greatly to the goodwill of the people of Sonoma County.
Today Food For Thought serves more than 650 men, women, and children affected by HIV/AIDS. The organization still focuses primarily on nutritional support. We have one of the most active volunteer programs in the county, with more than 500 people annually donating their time and energy to the service of our clients.