Food insecurity is all over the news. Between images of families waiting in cars to receive emergency bags from food banks, to hit-or-miss produce sections on grocery store shelves, to volunteers handing out meals to students at now-closed schools, it’s obvious that we have a problem.
It’s not a new problem, though. Our local food system has been vulnerable for much longer than the short month – and pandemic stress test – that it has taken for many to notice.
Other, less conspicuous signs of food insecurity have been hiding in plain sight for years. Each month, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada serves 91,000 people in a state that is classified as a “high food insecurity state” with 15 percent of the population receiving SNAP benefits and 57 percent of students in public schools qualifying for free and reduced lunch. We have one active community garden in the Reno-Sparks area. We have a highway-bound reliance on out-of-state produce. Add to this an economic crisis within a health crisis and you have a predicament instead of a bread basket.
Local nonprofits that are already tuned into the needs of food insecure Nevadans are having trouble keeping up.
“Right now fresh produce is less,” said the Food Bank of Northern Nevada Director of Marketing and Communication, Jocelyn Lantrip, in a recent phone call. “I think that is probably due to the supply chain and how it’s being affected by so many people buying a lot of food at once. We get a lot of produce donations from grocers and distributors to grocery stores but those have dropped because of the way they’re working now. A lot of shelves are empty so they don’t have as much left over to give to us.”
During normal operations, fresh produce makes up about 40 percent of what the Food Bank distributes. An interruption in the supply chain – whether for reasons of increased demand or slowed transportation due to weather or both – translates to less nutritious options for people in need.
The Women and Children’s Center of the Sierra has run up against similar concerns.
“We are expecting to be able to help people next week with some staples and hopefully with some fresh vegetables,” said Director Pam Russell. “In addition to not having enough food, there’s also a transportation problem for people to be able to get where they can buy food. The closest store that most of the people in our neighborhood would go to would be Walmart, Sam’s Club, or possibly Grocery Outlet, but it’s still a long distance.”
Areas without access to affordable, nutritious food – known as food deserts – are common in northern Nevada. According to the census, eight urban areas in Reno and Sparks qualify as food deserts where more than one third of residents live more than a mile from healthy food sources. In these areas, fast food, gas stations, and liquor stores replace supermarkets.
But organizations that provide intervention relief are only a stopgap solution to what local food organizers have always viewed as a larger structural problem.
“It’s been a pretty abstract conversation until recently,” Kasey Crispin of Prema Farm and the Local Food Network told me over the phone. “What we’ve seen with this COVID spike is that when you don’t have a strong local food system, you’re reliant on these distribution chains that are inherently vulnerable to closing the borders, closing the roads because of weather conditions, or even more drastic situations. So that’s one aspect of the food security conversation in terms of food availability in a certain region.”
Crispin’s farm, which she operates with her husband Zach Cannady, is one of dozens of small operations that feed the supply of local, organic produce for small farmers markets, restaurants, and some local grocery stores. Additionally, Prema Farm also operates as an incubator – similar to Reno Food Systems – training young growers in high desert methods on their land in Long Valley.
In October of 2018, Crispin and Cannady launched the Riverside Farmers Market that – up until the shutdown – met every Saturday during the cool season and every Thursday during the warm season in the parking lot of the McKinley Arts Center. What began as a 9-vendor market has grown into a 40-vendor market.
“In order for us to really watch our local food economy develop and mature, we have to have more producers that are growing,” said Crispin. “It’s a delicate thing and this is one of the reasons why at the [Riverside Farmers] Market, we’re really focused on public education because we want all of our local farms to be successful. But at the same time, we can’t accept more farms than our shoppers will buy from.”
Small farms will always be a catalyst for creating demand, but they aren’t enough for large-scale food security. Nicole Sallaberry, co-founder of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op and DROPP Coordinator, sees mid-sized organic farms and large scale changes in how and when supermarkets and restaurants buy local produce as integral factors in food resilience.
“People say, yeah, I want local food – but really when it comes down to it, it’s really just easier to order from their regular distributor than bring on a new purveyor and go through all of that paperwork and then also to change their habits. Everyone is really busy and it’s easier to go with the convenient one.”
Before the Co-op had to quickly convert their inventory into online sales to reduce the strain on in-person shopping in their store, Sallaberry was working on a business plan that would help incentivize more local buying.
“Basically what I came to is in order for us to have more local food here, we have to buy more non-local food because we have to be able to provide consistency and quality year round in order for when the local stuff is here for people to be in the mode buying from us.”
Going forward, Sallaberry sees partnerships with institutions like “governing bodies, hospitals and schools” being as important as the restaurants that launched initial interest in local food. Places that can commit to a high levels of purchasing.
And of course, there’s always the original curiosity – growing your own food.
Since the Covid-19 breakout, national seed sales have soared as people return to the romantic (and practical) idea of victory gardens – as we often do in times like this.
Longtime local food organizer and Verdant Connections landscape architect, Jana Vanderhaar, is hopeful.
“There’s a lot of edible garden enthusiasts in this town but they’re kind of tucked away – it’s a hidden secret,” she said over the phone. “When I design edible landscapes for people, I would say not everybody wants to grow food but about half my clients for sure and there’s maybe 25% or so that are gung ho. They want a full on vegetable garden, they want a mini orchard, they want to grow herbs and pollinator gardens and everything to support that.”
It doesn’t take a lot of money to grow your own food. Or experience. Or space. You can even keep a 6-foot distance. And until we have a food system that is Nevada grown on a large scale, doing it on a small scale requires some seeds and a container. Vanderhaar recommends we “make lots of salads” and plant leafy greens right now.
For more information about where to find emergency food relief, visit The Great Basin Food Co-op or Prema Farm. Local gardening workshops and planting information are available at Verdant Connections and the Nevada Cooperative Extension.