Meeting the Crisis by Feeding the Vulnerable
Katina Connaughton is providing support through Sonoma Family MealSarah Maiellano
February 11, 2021
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Sarah Maiellano spoke with Katina Connaughton of SingleThread on how the crises she has faced as a restaurateur prepared her to be a helper in her community.
Just two months after Katina Connaughton and her husband Kyle opened their farm-driven restaurant and inn, SingleThread, in late 2016, torrential rain flooded their farm with four feet of water.
“We’re no strangers to crisis,” Katina likes to say.
Less than a year after the flood came the Tubbs Fire of 2017, which devastated Northern California and burned just ten miles away from their Healdsburg property. Not ones to sit back and watch, the husband-and-wife team turned the crisis into an opportunity to do good.
With the wildfire ripping through Sonoma County, they started cooking food from their farm and worked with a well-connected local journalist and friend, Heather Irwin, to get the meals to first responders and those who had been displaced. “As the smoke settled, we recognized that the need to feed people remained extremely high,” Connaughton recalls.
The trio brought together chefs, caterers, farmers, and bakers to create Sonoma Family Meal, a nonprofit that gets food to those in need. SingleThread has supported the organization since its 2017 founding—in that time, the group has been active through several natural disasters, including the Sebastopol flood and Kincade Fire. Over the years, Sonoma Family Meal has partnered with two dozen local restaurants—including Girl and the Fig, Gerard’s Paella, and Mateo’s Cocina Latina—and area farms to provide meals to a dozen local agencies that distribute meals to a variety of groups, notably those that serve the elderly, low-income members of the Hispanic community, and people in shelters.
And in 2020 when COVID-19 hit, Sonoma Family Meal and the Connaughtons were uniquely positioned to serve.
“We’re chefs and farmers and hospitality professionals,” Connaughton says. “Growing food, prepping food, and taking care of people is what we know how to do.”
Shortly after the pandemic struck California, the Connaughtons asked partners, supporters, and friends to purchase “blocks” of a few hundred meals at a time that the SingleThread kitchen could cook using ingredients from the farm. Sonoma Family Meal then donated the meals to people in need through its network of local agencies.
The program started with 200 donated meals a day, five days a week, and has now grown to 350 meals every day. Connaughton estimates that SingleThread alone has donated 40,000 meals. She credits many supporters, including Kistler Vineyards, Colgin Winery, Reeve Winery, and Russian River Brewery which have helped through fundraising as well as cash and product donations. Customers ordering SingleThread’s takeout dinners also have the option to add a package of meals or donate directly to the initiative with each order.
It’s a win-win for the restaurant, where Katina runs the farm and Kyle runs the kitchen. Though many hospitality workers nationwide are currently unemployed, 100 percent of SingleThread’s culinary team is working.
Sustainable agriculture is at the heart of SingleThread’s 24-acre farm, which grows vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers, and more. Describing her relationship with the kitchen as a constant dialogue, Connaughton jokes that she and her husband “have a lot of talks about crop planning and dish development as we’re waking up or falling asleep.”
That partnership has allowed them to “continue to provide produce to the kitchen to prepare meals [throughout the pandemic] with the same integrity as we do for SingleThread guests,” Connaughton says. Those meals have centered around comforting and nutritious food, such as roast chicken with roasted winter vegetables, turkey potpie, and pork chops with smashed farm potatoes and sautéed apples. “People take a lot of comfort in having a dignified meal,” Connaughton continued.
Even after the pandemic ends, feeding the hungry will continue to be part of SingleThread’s identity. “This year has shone a bright light on food insecurity and we’re trying to figure out how to best mitigate that,” Connaughton says. “We all feel a sense of responsibility to do our part.”
Of course, Katina and Kyle look forward to the day when they can safely reopen their restaurant. But, throughout the hardship and tragedy of the pandemic, the meal donation program has “given us the sense of purpose that we really need,” Katina says. “It’s allowed all of us to switch our focus from feeling burdened by pandemic to turning that around and focusing efforts to improve the lives of others.”
Sarah Maiellano is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.