On September 29, 2015, storm clouds gathered off the Eastern coast of the United States. Over the next few days, the storm blew up into a powerful nor’easter—then stalled, dumping torrential rains up and down the East Coast.
Among the hardest hit states was South Carolina. Parts of the state received a staggering two feet of rainfall, shattering records and resulting in massive, widespread flooding. Two dozen people died in the floods. Thousands were left homeless and coping with the wreckage.
As the rate of natural disasters of this scale increases due to a changing climate, the traditional services like FEMA and the Red Cross struggle to keep up with demand. In South Carolina, a unique coalition emerged to help fill the gap.
A loose-knit group called the United Peace Alliance sought collaboration from Organic Valley: If the co-op supplied the food and equipment, volunteers from United Peace Alliance would cook, feed, and serve those in need in South Carolina.
Within a week or two of the storm, the food truck arrived. “They were just starting to open up roads,” says Richard Rawski, who helped coordinate the kitchen. “We tried to hook up, but the only clean water we had were 16 or 12 ounce bottles. We had to open those into big huge pots, not only to cook, but also to wash dishes.”
The kitchen was situated in the town of Kingstree, county seat of rural Williamsburg County, and came to be known as the Kingstree Kitchen. Residents had been hit hard by flooding when the Black River—which ultimately crested a full two feet above its previous flood record—overflowed its banks and submerged the entire town, leading to a mandatory evacuation.
In addition to finding clean water, one of the biggest challenges the kitchen faced was getting the word out to those who needed food, Rawski says. In this, some residents became volunteers, themselves. Those who were able-bodied and had transportation would pick up food and distribute it to those in need. Other Williamsburg County residents came to help cook the food.
“A guy named James cooked on the last two Saturdays we were there,” Rawski remembers. “He cooked up barbecued ribs his way and helped us get food to the people. He immediately went and gave all his food away. That’s the way people are there—they are really looking out for each other.”
By the time the crew packed up the kitchen, they’d served more than 4,000 hot meals, representing more than 25,000 pounds of food, all of it donated.
“It was not only the food,” Rawski says, “but the love. You’re handing out food and people come with tears in their eyes. That touches your heart.”
Organic Valley has provided relief assistance following serious natural disasters for more than a decade, including sponsoring similar temporary, organic kitchens in Waveland, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina and in Union Beach, NJ, after Superstorm Sandy.