The Local Love Project is a community lifeline when disaster strikes.
By Alex Wilson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
at Merrick grew up on the tiny island of Key West, Florida, the southernmost tip of the continental United States and a town where the locals all know and rely on each other.
Merrick said it was a hometown where community was critical, and inspired the charity she founded that aims to forge connections between people and reach out with help during times of emergency.
“It was magical. You know, it was flip flops or barefoot to school. Fishing and swimming every single day. It was an amazing life,” she said. “Although, you know, disaster hits there, too. So growing up in hurricane central and seeing it, too, was another part of how all of this came about.”
Merrick surfed competitively and “fell in love” with Ventura when she came to the area for a surf contest at the age of 18. She recalled borrowing a bike to ride around downtown, seeing bands play and watching the surf rolling onto shore.
“I want to say it was around December and it was a heat wave and it was gorgeous. And you could literally trunk it in the water. And I went, ‘Oh, this place is amazing. And even in December, it’s gorgeous, and this is where I want to live,’” she recalled.
Merrick was hired to run a surf shop in Simi Valley and later spent years in the surf apparel business, even starting her own brand called Surf Chick that she ran for seven years. But when she decided she needed a career change about 16 years ago, Merrick decided to launch a charity promoting Ventura County’s agricultural industry and eating locally produced food. She and her family enjoyed spending summers and weekends on a friend’s family farm and learning more about agriculture, so she wanted to share that experience with others.
“My kids will tell you I’ve always had this soapbox about how we should support local and understand the importance of agriculture,” Merrick said about the creation of Totally Local VC.
Connecting consumers with growers
The organization’s activities include in-classroom education and mentoring programs for the agriculture, food science and culinary arts industries. Other signature events include the annual Taste of Local Festival, held in September at the Ventura County Credit Union corporate office’s expansive ocean-view lawn on Vista Del Mar Drive. The 2022 event included over 60 area chefs, farmers, and brewers along with dancing to live music by Spencer the Gardener and competitions for the best home-brewed beer and craft cocktails.
Another mainstay fundraiser is the Farm-to-Fork Dinner Series where lavishly decorated tables are set in scenic outdoors locations (in June, for example, a dinner took place at Harmon Canyon Preserve). Food is prepared by noted local chefs highlighting local farms and ranches, and served up family style.
“Our mission statement is to educate, advocate and celebrate, from field to fork and field to career,” Merrick said. “If you eat and you wear clothes, you’re involved in agriculture. So it’s kind of understanding all of that, the aspects of it, and local small businesses, and the role they play in all of this.”
Before launching the charity, Merrick said she visited several cities that had shop local programs to meet their economic development departments and saw lots of advertising campaigns but very little community involvement. That’s what led to the idea of hosting outdoor fundraising dinners where people could really experience locally grown food.
“I had thought the best way to do this is to create ways to engage with your community so that they really feel connected and they really get to experience what you’re talking about. Supporting local, eating local, doing what we do. So that’s where Totally Local VC came from and developed and grew organically into what it is.”
It takes a village
Totally Local VC is powered by a team of devoted volunteers who number over 300, while there are a handful of paid workers at larger events.
Alyson Warner was in the catering industry for many years and was brought on to help organize the first-ever Field-to-Fork dinner about 12 years ago on the lawn outside Ventura City Hall.
Warner said she and Merrick have operated as a team ever since.
“I remember Kat and I, the two of us, went to city hall and said, okay, the table is going to be out front, the kitchen is going to be inside. And the two of us locked arms and counted out the number of steps that it would be to get from the kitchen to the table. And it really felt like a partnership in doing that first event,” Warner said.
In addition to sharing Merrick’s vision for the presentation of the dishes, Warner also believes in the cause of promoting eating locally produced food.
“There’s a few different layers to it. I mean, if you’re just looking at it from a nutrition standpoint, literally a piece of produce that has traveled less miles to get to your plate is going to be more delicious. It’s going to be fresher, it’s sweeter, there’s actually going to be more nutrients in it,” she explained. “But from an economic standpoint, when you’re supporting the local farmer, when you’re supporting a local CSA or farmers’ market, that money stays in the community in a way that doesn’t happen when something’s being imported.”
“Ventura County is a special little gem. We have incredible agriculture here and we can keep the agriculture here and we can support farmers. That just means more delicious food for everybody,” Warner added.
Thomas Fire: A call to action
Merrick got a taste of the farming life herself after purchasing an avocado ranch in the West Ventura area a few years ago. Wicked Wire Ranch is about 20 acres situated on a rugged hillside east of the Pepsi bottling plant and just outside Ventura city limits. Merrick installed a demonstration garden for Totally Local VC on the property.
But Merrick had only been living there for about two years when disaster struck.
On the night of Dec. 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire roared through the hillsides from Santa Paula to Ventura. The fire razed the ranch, burning down everything including a main house, three rental properties and over 280 avocado trees. No one knew at the time that it would go on to be one of the biggest fires in California history, burning over 280,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 structures.
Merrick safely evacuated her tenants and pets, and watched the ranch buildings become consumed by flames from a nearby neighborhood down the hill.
“It’s still surreal,” Merrick said. “You know, you still have flashbacks of what it’s like.”
She saw the value of a caring community when friends showed up to help put out the lingering flames over several days. As the scope of the disaster became apparent, Merrick and her friends realized there were untold numbers of people in similar need.
“We as a team stood up here talking about, ‘How can we help? We’ve got to do something,’” said Merrick.
Which is how the Local Love Project came about.
Clothing companies including Patagonia and Nike donated new apparel to fire victims, and the charity started counseling fire victims directly about their immediate needs. Members of the Masonic Lodge in Ventura offered space for disaster victims to pick up donations and receive other assistance. In the months that followed, relief efforts were also staged at San Buenaventura Mission.
The Local Love Project also helped with recovery efforts involving the November 2018 Woolsey Fire that burned between Oak Park and Malibu, using donated space at The Oaks shopping center in Thousand Oaks. In addition, the charity has provided help and expertise to faraway communities impacted by wildfires in Northern California and even Oregon.
Care during COVID
The Local Love Project again sprang to action when the pandemic caused massive disruptions to people’s lives after March 2020, especially for workers in the restaurant, entertainment and hospitality industries who unexpectedly lost their jobs. Agricultural and food companies donated millions of dollars’ worth products to help people in immediate need, Merrick said.
Ventura County Fairgrounds officials allowed the Agricultural Building to be turned into a makeshift factory for packing boxes and bags of food and supplies, since holding a fair in the summer of 2020 was just a strangely impossible dream. The parking lot at shuttered Winchester’s Grill and Saloon in Downtown Ventura became a drive-through distribution point.
This COVID relief effort was a massive operation, with trucks dropping off produce, forklifts carrying pallets through the cavernous fairgrounds building, and long tables of hard-working volunteers sorting food and packing relief boxes and bags.
And it wasn’t just agriculture companies that stepped up to the plate with donations. Procter & Gamble donated toilet paper, which was in unusually high demand due to hoarding, as well as other products; Merrick said they had a combined value of over $1.3 million. Trader Joe’s donated tons of items with torn labels or slightly dented cans, so recipients were likely to get a few fun products or interesting sauces along with staples like produce and pasta.
Making a difference
Participating in this relief operation had a big personal impact on many volunteers, Warner said, since it was a time when people were suddenly isolated due to pandemic restrictions. Some volunteers were out of work for the first time in their adult lives, and Warner said it was rewarding for her to help coordinate the volunteer response.
“You felt helpful when there was a time when everyone felt helpless,” Warner described. “Everybody’s in this daze, and to have that opportunity to feel like you’re making a difference, see other people, be part of something that is helping others. You’re kind of giving that gift of volunteering, that experience. It made me cry every day.”
Mary Campbell said she’s known Merrick “forever” because she’s best friends with Merrick’s daughter, and has worked with Totally Local VC on numerous events, including warehouse management and distribution roles at the fairgrounds.
Campbell worked at a hair salon before the COVID shutdowns and said it was a shock to find her once-reliable livelihood on hold.
“As a hairdresser, all you do is sit and talk to people all day long. And so to then be stuck at home and have no one to talk to, I was losing my mind,” she recalled. “So being able to go [to Local Love Project relief efforts] was wonderful. Because the interaction between people, and strangers you’ve never met, you’re just so excited to be like, ‘Hi, how are you? What are you here for? Where do you live? What’s your favorite color?’ You know, it didn’t matter what you were talking about. It was just so nice to be around people.”
Campbell was also happy to help people who were in the same boat as her, suddenly out of work in a totally unanticipated manner. “It was nice to be able to offer these great produce boxes and get some toilet paper and paper towels. Now you don’t have to worry about taking what little money you have and buying stuff, and then maybe you get to eat a little better than just Top Ramen.”
“You’re giving back to yourself every time you volunteer”
A new goal for the Local Love Project is disaster preparedness, targeting low-income families with kits including flashlights and first-aid kits. Plans are in the works for emergency response clinics to teach people to turn off utilities in an earthquake or other disaster.
“Because how many people know how to do that? They don’t,” Merrick said. “We’re looking at grant programs to keep the preparedness ready because it’s not if a disaster happens, it’s when something will happen again. And we just all need to be prepared.”
The Local Love Project also continues to assist people still dealing with the impacts of losing their homes and belongings in the Thomas Fire, Merrick said.
“Actually this week I’ve been working on a project to get some funding to help several with some of the issues that they’re still dealing with. So it’s what we do. We’re problem solvers,” she said.
Merrick’s own recovery from the Thomas Fire is still ongoing because permit issues have led to delays rebuilding the main house on Wicked Wire Ranch. The site remains vacant, but progress is being made. An RV served as her primary residence for more than two years after the fire and was replaced by a modular building Merrick lives in currently.
Through all her own disaster recovery and helping others, Merrick said it’s all reinforced her belief in the value of community.
“Because I know what it’s like to have loss and to not know where to go,” Merrick said. “What we do with Totally Local VC is special. What we did with Thomas Fire and COVID and how we were able to help our community on that level, to me, that was my therapy. You know, it helped me get through it. And, you know, you say you’re helping, but what you’re really doing is you’re giving back to yourself every time you volunteer.”