Many people associate food pantries with shelf-stable products–things like boxed and canned food. They’re not wrong, but this is changing in northern Nevada thanks to CARES Act funding and the work of groups like Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada (CCNN) and local food producers.
In the past, food boxes distributed through CCNN and its St. Vincent’s Food Pantry consisted of approximately 80% shelf-stable items. But with help from CARES Act funding awarded it by the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the City of Reno, CCNN has been working to change that while also helping local food producers hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions that have devastated the food and beverage industry.
Now, food boxes delivered through the pantry contain only 15% shelf-stable items in addition to a variety of fresh, locally made food like cheese, eggs, tortillas, bread, milk, butter, meat, fruits and vegetables.
CCNN has partnered with more than a dozen local farmers, ranchers and even a beekeeper with almost three decades experience making honey. It’s a project that’s been underway since July.
Relief funds spur investment, expansion
In October, 26 pantries in seven counties across northern Nevada supplied 6,000 households—or 25,000 people—with grown and produced food items. Each household received approximately 45 to 65 pounds of food.
“We’ve operated across the state as an agency even pre-COVID, so we’ve always had a network of providing food and providing social services throughout rural Nevada,” said Marie Baxter, CEO of CCNN. “What the Department of Agriculture CARES Act grant allowed us to do was provide a lot more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, meats, dairy products—things that are perishables—across our pantry network, and all locally produced. … It was just a tremendous program.”
Baxter said CCNN has been able to reach just about every county with the program, including serving more than 1,000 people outside of Ely in White Pine County.
“I mean, it’s tens of thousands overall, but that one was just so remarkable because they’re so isolated out in White Pine County—and we were able to truck food across the state,” she said.
CCNN was also able to use part of its grant funding to purchase a flash freezer, which Baxter said has allowed the organization to take advantage of produce grown during the region’s relatively short growing season. Food received from local producers that doesn’t get distributed in weekly food boxes around Northern Nevada is flash frozen and used at St. Vincent’s Dining hall to support the growing number of meals prepared there each day.
Of course, all CARES Act funds come with the caveat that they must be spent by the end of the year, and CCNN has made sure to do so. But Baxter and her team have also been working to find ways to extend the organization’s partnerships with local food producers.
“We are actively working with Catholic Charities USA in particular,” she said. “They have a full-time government affairs person, which is fantastic.”
She said they’ve sent letters to Congress and are hoping to know more about additional COVID-19 relief funds before the holidays.
“COVID is not going away on Dec. 31, and the programs that we’ve provided are truly life sustaining. I mean, delivering groceries to somebody’s house who cannot get out because of COVID or a variety of other reasons—and it’s challenging to think about those programs going away in a couple of weeks,” Baxter said. “At Catholic Charities, I can tell you that we’ve had a variety of different discussions into ways that we can hopefully sustain some, if not all, of our CARES Act programming at least for a month or two into the new year to see what’s going to happen at the federal and state levels.”
Producers find new outlets for their supply
For now, restaurants must continue operating at lower capacity per government mandates—a reality that is pushing some out of business. That puts local food producers at risk. Many of the local food producers with whom CCNN has partnered have previously relied heavily on restaurants to purchase their goods, and Baxter knows they will struggle if a solution to keep their goods flowing to people in need is not found.
“There was one gentleman who produced organic pork for the restaurant industry, and we really—no pun intended—saved his bacon, because we were able to purchase a lot of his pork that he didn’t have anywhere for it to go,” she said.
This is also a reality for Doug Avanzino, owner of Avanzino Farms—which his family has operated for nearly 100 years.
“I lost sales because a lot of the restaurants closed up,” he said. “I sell to Bonanza Produce, and they sell to the local restaurants.”
He also lost money as a result of cancelled events like the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off, for which he usually produces sweetcorn, and on pumpkins for local pumpkin patches.
“I lost sales everywhere,” he said. “Groceries stores buy more, so I gained some there. But then all of the restaurants couldn’t buy any, so I lost some there. Catholic Charities buying helped with that—buying what other places wouldn’t. It’s a good program.”
Isidro Alves, owner of Sand Hill Dairy in Fallon, provided a lot of his dairy products to local restaurants and bakeries. He said he too has been grateful for the opportunity to sell to CCNN instead. His relationship with the organization pre-dates the pandemic. He’s been providing his excess milk and other dairy products to the St. Vincent’s Dining Hall for years.
Alves is among many local food producers who are hoping for additional funding for programs like CCNN’s. He also works with other organizations and individuals who are seeking ways to sustain the local food industry, like Fallon Food Hub, Soulful Seeds and others.
Searching for more sustainable solutions
At the Desert Farming Initiative (DFI)—a farm associated with the University of Nevada, Reno’s, Department of Agriculture—Education Program Coordinator Jill Moe spends a lot of her time working to find sustainable solutions to providing fresh local food to those in need.
Since DFI was started, it has grown its commercial operations and also served as a place for education, outreach and research farming. In the last year or so, its operators have delved increasingly into the work of seeking solutions for food insecurity. In addition to being one of CCNN’s partners through its CARES Act funding, DFI has received funding of its own through various grants.
According to Moe, with funds from a half a dozen grants, DFI has provided produce to the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Community Health Alliance, the UNR Pack Provisions pantry and others.
“They’ve done surveys on campus, and through one recently learned that one in four students are food insecure on the UNR campus,” she said.
Moe said that figure might surprise a lot of people who assume college students tend to be better off financially, adding that she’s been grateful for DFI’s partnership with Pack Provisions—a partnership that pre-dates the pandemic and has allowed DFI to fulfill its mission of seeking solutions for regional food insecurity in places people may not expect it.
Recently, DFI teamed up with the Fallon Food Hub to create the Farm to Market Network. It’s a produce distribution network that transports produce to markets for growers, alleviating them of time-consuming drives.
According to Moe, DFI and about 10 other organizations have been meeting since the spring to discuss food security in the region. These partner organizations include CCNN and groups like Fallon Food Hub, Soulful Seeds, Reno Food Systems, Food Bank of Northern Nevada and the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
“Something we’ve been focusing on this year, in anticipation of this being an ongoing situation for some time, is just building our capacity to store and transport food,” Moe said. “So, we got one of those CARES Act grants to put in additional cool storage and get a delivery van that has more capacity to move food.”
Moe explained the Farm to Market Network has established a route through northern Nevada with points where growers can meet drivers to drop off their produce to be delivered to its destination.
“Our food system is so spread out, and growers can spend a ton of time delivering food, and that takes away from their time growing the food,” she said.
Another project DFI has been working on recently has been finding a way to make Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits useable at more places, like farmer’s markets. Moe said she thinks it’s important for organizations like hers to continue working to find ways to get high quality, healthy foods to people without the resources to purchase it at high-end stores.
“I guess what I would highlight about the produce we grow and what other small producers are growing for food pantries—what’s so great about it is that it’s usually picked and delivered within days, and it’s just such a higher quality than what food pantries usually get,” she said.