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Coalition connections create nourishment for rural communities hard-hit by economic slump

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Recently Kelly Clark of USDA Rural Development visited Dayton to collect information for a report to USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.  She met with Christy McGill and Wendy Madson of Healthy Communities Coalition of Lyon and Storey for a tour of one of the five organic school gardens the coalition has developed in the past year in partnership with schools, businesses, nonprofits, organic farms, volunteers and Boys and Girls Clubs youths and funding through USDA and State of Nevada Health Division .

After her tour of the Dayton Elementary School garden and hoop house, Clark commented, “I had a blast! I especially loved that the kids were so into their work.…They came up with good questions for me, and we took pictures of each other, which was fun. I was impressed by how intent the children were with harvesting potatoes. In spite of a gale-force Nevada wind, they kept at their work right up until the recess bell. It was only then that I could see their happy faces and proud smiles. Wendy Madson, Healthy Communities Coalition’s school and community garden liaison, was working right there with them, as the piles of potatoes grew. It looked like a good harvest….The smiles on the kids’ faces tells the story.”

Michele Paul, a fifth grade teacher at Dayton Elementary, explained how the school garden, which the students interact with as a sort of “living playground,” has been utilized to enhance lessons. “We made homemade potato cheese soup with the harvest. We also used fresh garlic from the garden. The kids loved that they got to prepare, cook and eat food that they had a hand in growing! I’m planning on coming up with more recipes to share with the kids that can be made with the produce from our garden. This is awesome – I’m so glad to be involved with this program.”

How are gardens used to teach?

School gardens can provide “seed to table” education that can be used to meet rigorous new Nevada curriculum standards, with students learning through experience, using all five senses to understand lessons in science, health and history. These “learning” afford opportunities for students to analyze and amend soils, cultivate garden beds, maintain a garden compost where they learn about nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as fungus, bacteria and invertebrates, dabble in vermiculture (earthworms!)  and splice tomato plants, while older students can develop micro-businesses such as heirloom plants or other specialty crops sales for restaurants.

As students are exposed to all sorts of fresh vegetables and fruits that they’ve helped grow in their own school gardens, they become more adventurous eaters, more willing to include fresh foods in their meals. They’re able to use their garden harvests in edible lessons in nutrition, health, and culinary arts. As they learn where food comes from, and more about the connections among farming, food, and health, students become more interested in our rich agricultural history in Northern Nevada.

How does local food education, production and sales enhance wellness?

The Lyon County region of Nevada has experienced an official unemployment rate ranging between 15 percent and 19 percent for three long years. This year the requests for food assistance through the coalition food pantries increased by over 30 percent.  But the newly connecting tendrils among coalition volunteers and partners working on a system of “food sufficiency” in the region allowed people to beat back an alarming, rapid increase in hunger with newly formed partnerships and informal networks of support and kindness that bloomed in amazing ways.

The coalition members and staff have seen people of all ages and from all backgrounds bonding and working together to address hunger and poor nutrition not only through the new school gardens but also through coalition-sponsored community gardens, farmers markets, teen farm internships, volunteer-powered food pantries, creative food drives and fundraisers, food co-ops and food backpack programs as well.

The result has been not only a reduction in hunger and poor nutrition but also a cultivation of “sparks” in young people and deeper connection to community among all ages.

Why is the USDA interested in gardens and farmers markets?

USDA Rural Development is a supporter of local and regional food efforts in Nevada. One hundred and fifty consumer marketing projects were funded in October by USDA’s Farmer’s Market Promotion Program.  This funding supports direct marketing and increases consumer access to healthy food, much of it in “food deserts” and other low income areas. A “food desert” is defined by the USDA as a low-income region that lacks ready access to healthy food.

In Nevada, Healthy Communities Coalition of Lyon and Storey Counties, a regional nonprofit, was awarded $74,405 to start and promote local farmers markets in rural food desert counties of Nevada. The food desert that the group dealt with had two problems: little availability of locally grown fresh produce and local organic farmers who were having difficulty getting their product to market.

Kelly Clark’s report to USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan

Following is part of the report by USDA Rural Development’s Kelly Clark regarding her tour of the Dayton Elementary school garden and hoop house and her interview with Healthy Communities’ staff regarding development of community and school gardens, farmers markets and food co-ops.  Clark sent the report below to USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who oversees the day to day operations of the USDA on a national level and is in charge of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program:

The nonprofit Healthy Communities Coalition is focused on meeting the “food desert” needs  in Lyon, Storey, and Mineral Counties. Healthy Communities Coalition, with eight board members, 7 part time staff, hundreds of community volunteers, and over 100 local, state and federal partners, has worked to connect seven local organic gardeners with schools, farmers markets, and social service organizations to get fresh produce delivered to underserved communities. In Dayton, the local organic farmers have trained teen-aged interns from the high school to teach elementary students about growing vegetables in their own school gardens. Currently there are four school gardens and two community gardens in Dayton; one school garden in Silver Springs; one community garden in Silver City; one community garden in Yerington; one Farmer’s Market in Lockwood; one community garden in Virginia City; and one community garden in Hawthorne. In both Hawthorne and Yerington the Cooperative Extension staff is essential to the community garden process. In Silver Springs and Dayton, youth from the Boys and Girls Club play an important part in garden maintenance, especially during the summer months.

Coalition partners, including Community Roots and Community Chest, Inc., have organized local farmers markets in both Dayton and Virginia City.  There is no charge for farmers to participate, but the Coalition does ask that growers they make a donation in fresh produce after each market, which is donated to the senior centers, food pantries, and youth groups in Dayton and Silver Springs. The schools also participate, with students selling their produce at the markets and learning how to inventory and market their produce. Healthy Communities Coalition staff estimated that through the farmers market gleaning and donations from the school gardens, 7,000 pounds of fresh produce was donated this year to the underserved in Dayton and Silver Springs.

But fresh produce is not the only need; food pantries for the underserved were also lacking. The Healthy Communities Coalition has worked to develop food linkages with The Food Bank of Northern Nevada, and with support of the USDA Commodities program. Those food networks, along with volunteer donations and volunteer food drives, keep food pantries open in a very low-income  area. Mound House, Silver Springs, Stagecoach and Dayton all have small food pantries along the Highway 50 corridor. Hundreds of volunteers help organize food drives and hold community yard sales to raise funds.  Recently the local Latter Day Saints Church used their church’s commercial kitchen to can 700 pounds of rice for the Dayton Food Pantry. In the future the Coalition hopes to build its own commercial kitchen.

In the future, the Coalition is looking to address the food desert problem by developing a mobile produce and food pantry truck, along with an EBT machine to accept food stamps, to bring fresh produce and foods into rural remote communities that are altogether lacking in grocery stores.

The idea is that the seven local organic farmers in the region will join the newly created Silver Stage Food Co-Op, and the truck will be mobilized in both low-wealth areas with produce provided at a lower cost point, and in higher-wealth areas at a higher price point, so that the farmers can actually make a living with their high quality, locally grown organic produce.

For more information

For more information about Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, please see Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s web page.

Healthy Communities Coalition is funded, in part, by Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Agency.  For more information about Healthy Communities Coalition and Community Roots, please see www.healthycomm.org or call 246-7550.

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