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High Desert, Not Food Desert: Creating Sustainable Food Solutions for the Rural West

What if our food desert wasn't a food desert, but a participatory food system where people from all walks of life could take part?

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Healthy Communities Coalition of Lyon and Storey Counties

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Lyon County School District - Government

Website of Legally Registered Entity

healthycomm.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Dayton, Nevada

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Lyon and Mineral Counties, Nevada, located within the Great Basin Desert.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Healthy Communities Coalition began in 2002 as a prevention coalition, but in 2008 as the recession tightened its grip on our community, it became clear that we needed to do more to help our neighbors who were struggling to get enough to eat. In 2010 Healthy Communities Coalition began strategically working toward improving our local food system. Currently, Healthy Communities Coalition manages three food pantries throughout Lyon County serving nearly 3,600 people and distributing over 100,000 pounds of food each month. In partnership with Lyon County school district, we host a thriving year-round school garden program at 6 elementary and middle schools.  We organize a farmer's market during the summer months to create connections between local farmers and community member, and last year, we dedicated the first community garden in Lyon County, the Dayton Solidarity Garden. It is our hope that the Garden will serve not only as a focal point for local food and a venue to learn about agriculture, but also as a supportive, nurturing space where members of the community feel welcome and accepted.

Although we have undertaken a range of activities to improve food security in our region and help ensure that those in need have food, it's time to do more. The challenges faced by our neighbors necessitate that we continue to find new solutions to increase food access. Together, area farmers, the school district, agencies, partner non-profits, businesses and volunteers are working to strengthen our local food system to create economic opportunities for farmers and food entrepreneurs; expand access to healthy, affordable food for local residents; and meet growing demand for healthy, local food. Food is an important part of culture and identity, and we strive to provide nourishment, but also a place to belong and grow.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The high desert, at a glance, is just sagebrush dotted by manufactured homes and crossed by desolate roads. US 50, the main highway, has been christened the Loneliest Road in America. As the region has grown, rural areas have become a bedroom community for manufacturers who chose Nevada for the business-friendly climate. However, many of the jobs require skills residents don’t have, and a lack of affordable housing has driven those who are able to find employment into the rural areas to live. This drives up housing prices and puts ownership out of reach for many.

There are few amenities like public transport, retail and grocery stores or health services. USDA has designated portions of Lyon County as food desert. Without media outlets, those with internet use social media to share news, events and issues facing the community. Remote geography and socioeconomic factors complicate delivery of goods and services, including food.

At the Food Pantry, people are offered a selection of fresh produce, meat, dry goods and occasionally, sushi or pizza donated by a local grocery. The clientele is diverse – a single mom; an elderly couple on social security; a middle-aged homeless man trying to make a life for himself. They come for food and a chance to connect with others. The pantry is set up like a small grocery store. Community Health Workers help to access other services. In the midst of the din, staff and volunteers who run the pantry are constantly busy: seeking donations, coordinating deliveries, educating visitors about healthy choices; restocking and record-keeping, and occasionally going above and beyond to make sure a pantry visitor has a ride to an appointment, a warm blanket, or a pair of gloves.

There are all kinds of people here. The state, known for its Wild West aesthetic, draws artists, fortune-seekers, and those who long for a life off-grid. The culture is marked by rugged individualism, manifested as distrust of outsiders and government. Libertarian sentiment is strong, and many express disdain for social programs, laws of any sort, and lament the “Californication” of the state. The value of self-reliance is shared, even when other things aren’t.

Looking at the landscape, it seems unlikely that this is the state’s top agricultural producer, but there are over four hundred farms tucked into the landscape. The people who work the land are determined. It’s a tough way to make a living, more so due to the scant water. Nonetheless, crops thrive under the attention of these dedicated farmers.

To the south, large farms are tended by itinerant laborers. Many do not speak English. Further, the town of Schurz is located on the Walker River Indian Reservation. The forefathers of the Tribe fought to remain in their ancestral lands after repeated attempts to remove them. Today, much of the land is alfalfa fields.

The desert and its people are beautiful and rugged. In need of help, but wary of accepting it. This is a place of close-knit community, and of loneliness. Despite its remoteness and challenges, it’s home.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

15120

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

60322

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Rural Nevada faces important challenges socially, economically, and environmentally, and it is difficult to disentangle the food system from the rest of the barriers faced by this disenfranchised collection of communities. The immediate and most obvious challenge is the lack of access to food in rural communities. Without stores nearby, and with little income, residents have difficulty purchasing food, especially fresh and perishable items. Because of this, many rely on diets of shelf-stable foods, which often are less nutritious and high in preservatives. If people are able to purchase fresh foods at a local convenience store, the price is often greatly inflated, making the healthy choice a difficult choice for people who often lack discretionary income. Many people rely on food pantries to supply nutritious foods, but donations of food to the pantries are not guaranteed. At the same time, local farmers lack a system for selling or bartering their produce to their neighbors, limiting the amount of economic benefit that they can achieve in their own communities. Additionally, rural Nevada does not have its own media market, so sharing messages and marketing opportunities for local food is limited to community social media pages or word-of-mouth.

Policies and programs set forth by governments from the local level up to the Federal Government encumber food producers with regulatory hurdles that limit profitability and productivity, fail to reach those most in need of assistance, and do not address the looming environmental challenges threatening to destroy our planet. In Nevada, the State continues to focus on indicators such as SNAP enrollment without acknowledging the lack of value in SNAP for those who do not live in a place that they can buy groceries. The State presents small, diverse farmers with convoluted, time-consuming online forms to complete for Producers Certificates so they can take their produce to market, adding a layer of difficulty to making a living as a farmer. On the Federal level, school food policies do nothing to ensure that our children are being fed nutritious, tasty, locally-sourced meals. Subsidies to large farms promote destructive agriculture methods that ensure monoculture crops further deplete the soil, increase the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and ruin the biodiversity of our farmlands. And these are just a few examples. Looming, ever present, are the risks posed by climate change.

Because of the independent nature of those who call Nevada home, it can be challenging to build consensus among residents, but with the right coalition of people and partners, progress can be made to developing a food system that works for our communities.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision addresses the challenges faced by our region through the creation of a more equitable, diverse, and sustainable food system that facilitates and coordinates the production, distribution and marketing of local food products. We believe that a local participatory food system is an effective method of economic "gardening" as well, leading to expanded market opportunities for local agriculture producers and processors, an increase in access to fresh healthy foods for residents, and improved economic and health outcomes for the region.

We will utilize a number of strategies to achieve this: farmers markets will serve as points-of-sale for farms and ranches in the region to interact with customers that want to buy source-verified local and regional food. Community co-ops that accepts SNAP benefits will also serve as a regional hubs where local farms and ranches, as well as market gardeners and cottage food producers can sell locally-produced foods at a cost that is affordable for residents.

Our vision includes regional commercial-grade food preparation spaces that meet food safety standards to provide those who wish to produce value-added projects with a venue for doing so, along with training and mentorship on applicable laws and policies to help navigate the requirements for food production and sales.

Training, mentoring, cross-agency communication, capacity building are the cornerstone of our vision, and the best to overcome challenges faced by our region. Our school gardens are already helping to grow the next generation of local food producers, but our intent is to build capacity for sustainable and regenerative micro-farming in the form of community gardens, educational school gardens, and backyard gardens through connecting and funding training, technical assistance and mentoring to youths, adult participants in local food pantries, and other groups.

The food produced in the community would stay in the community, alleviating hunger, reducing the need for food assistance, and building pride and self-sufficiency. There is a role for everyone in the food system: some grow the food, some process the food into value-added products like jams, jellies, salsa or breads; some are consumers, improving their health and that of their families by choosing fresh and local. Together, we can overcome challenges to make rural Nevada a true oasis in the desert.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

What if our food desert wasn't a food desert? What if food insecurity could be alleviated locally? What if residents, including low-income residents, had a hand in a local food system that was designed to serve THEM, instead of corporations? What if, in rural Nevada, people had access to fresh, local food, and what if that food was grown on diverse, small farms the way it used to be before factory farms and monoculture and the "get big or get out" mentality promoted by current government policy?

Our vision is for a local food system based on participatory agriculture that empowers people to play an active role in where their food comes from. Neighbors helping neighbors by organizing locally and acting cooperatively to provide for food needs in their own community. This system would provide education, mentorship, and support for people who wish to grow food, raise livestock, or create cottage food products. It would create a co-op for people to utilize SNAP benefits in rural areas to purchase affordable, healthy food as it became available, directly from their neighbors who grow it. It would provide economic possibilities for small farmers, market gardeners, and orchardists by creating an outlet for their products, reducing waste through food rescue, and allowing them to grow in response to local demand.

Our project would work at local and state levels of government to streamline and simplify processes that present an undue burden to small producers, while still upholding food safety principles. We would educate participants about environmental impacts and sustainability to help improve future yields and ensure a supply of nutritious food to 2015 and beyond.

We have already begun to lay the groundwork for this ambitious project through our existing school and community gardens, farmers market, and food pantries. We are networking with local farmers to recruit them to act as mentors. Together, we can make a food system for us, our neighbors, our family.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Food is our shared interest. It is our heritage, our culture, our future. We share food in celebration and bring food as comfort in times of struggle. Our traditions revolve around it. Food is inextricably linked to who we are as people, and to our survival as a species. So why should we settle for a food system that is fundamentally inaccessible to large swaths of the population?

What do we need to do to get there?

Our vision, which is to create a sustainable food system for Rural Lyon and Mineral Counties that grows rural economies, improves health outcomes and provides a reliable source of food for people at all socioeconomic levels, relies on six core tenets and strategies:

  • Promote existing farms and recruit new farmers. Lyon County is the number one agricultural producing county in Nevada with over 400 farms, according to the 2014 Farm Census. Based on this, there should be no shortage of food in Lyon County. However, this is not the case. Promoting existing farms and helping them to realize financial benefits in local markets could be beneficial. We know that farmers often are busy and forced to wear many hats. One way to familiarize the public with local farms is through a concerted social media effort. As far as recruiting new farmers, this effort has already started with the school and community gardens in Lyon and Mineral County. Micro-farming could be the answer to alleviating food security in our region, with many people growing and sharing small harvests. The idea of farming may seem overwhelming for many people, but through mentorship and education, and an emphasis on starting small with foods you like, more people can participate in the food system.
  • Encourage value-added producers. Not everyone wants to grow crops or tend to livestock, but that does not mean there is no role for them in the food system. Processing food products presents an excellent opportunity to reduce waste through preserving foods, creates economic opportunities to sell jams, pickles, or baked goods, and, perhaps most importantly, preserves traditions and heritage. Nevada already has a cottage foods law on the books that allows at-home production of a variety of value-added food products. We will focus on educating people about this law and how to become certified as a cottage food producer. Additionally, our vision will place public commercial-grade kitchens in communities so that those who wish to make and sell prepared foods have the opportunity to do so.
  • Alleviate environmental impacts on food, while balancing food’s impact on the environment. Our current food system negatively impacts the environment in many ways. Monoculture farming depletes the soil, destroys biodiversity, and creates toxic runoff due to overuse of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Additionally, transportation of food from the farm to the processor to the distributor to the consumer relies on the consumption of fossil fuels and, by the time it arrives at it’s destination, many of the nutrients have degraded and the shelf life is much less. Our vision for a local food system fueled primarily by diverse small farms, market gardeners, and local processors is much more friendly to the environment. The diversity of the small farm creates opportunities to utilize permaculture and organic gardening principles to encourage biodiversity and soil regeneration, creating sustainability and actually building fertility. Transportation is virtually eliminated, as the food is grown and consumed locally. This means that costs are held in check because the overhead is significantly less to get the food to market, and the nutrition profile of the food is better!
  • Build cooperation, community, and a pride of place for rural Nevadans. Many people in the communities we serve suffer from isolation. There are limited opportunities to participate in events and activities that grow a sense of community, and as the internet has increased in popularity, face-to-face interaction has declined even more. This project creates a long-term solution to building community, increasing human interaction, and developing community pride. Working together towards a common goal, and sharing together in the benefits, will help generate support for the project as it grows, gaining momentum and expanding participation.
  • Reduce waste. Food waste is a problem almost everywhere, but food rescue movements have the opportunity to reduce that waste. The highest goal for food is for it to be eaten and enjoyed fresh, but in some cases that does not happen. The system we’re proposing has several alternatives to ensure that there is not waste. First, excess food can be donated to food pantries or co-ops to be shared with our neighbors in need. Secondly, cottage food processors can cooperate with farmers and orchardists to glean food that would otherwise go uneaten and preserve it. Alternatively, those who raise livestock in the food system can reduce their input costs and utilize food waste to nourish livestock. Food scraps can be utilized in community composting programs to help regenerate and build the soil for future growing.
  • Make food accessible and affordable for everyone. Despite the bounty at our doorstep, most of the food grown here is not destined for hungry mouths in Lyon County. The burgeoning farm-to-fork restaurant scene in Reno demands an ever-increasing supply of farm fresh food and pays premium prices. Keeping food at home means developing a system that adequately compensates farmers for their products and alleviates logistical concerns of distribution, while facilitating consumers ability to purchase by hosting convenient and proximal outlets and maximizing financial resources like SNAP and other benefits to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Our vision is for a local food system based on participatory agriculture that empowers people to play an active role in where their food comes from. Neighbors helping neighbors by organizing locally and acting cooperatively to provide for food needs in their own community. This system would provide education, mentorship, and support for people who wish to grow food, raise livestock, or create cottage food products. It would create a co-op for people to utilize SNAP benefits in rural areas to purchase affordable, healthy food as it became available, directly from their neighbors who grow it. It would provide economic possibilities for small farmers, market gardeners, and orchardists by creating an outlet for their products, reducing waste through food rescue, and allowing them to grow in response to local demand.

Our project would work at local and state levels of government to streamline and simplify processes that present an undue burden to small producers, while still upholding food safety principles. We would educate participants about environmental impacts and sustainability to help improve future yields and ensure a supply of nutritious food to 2015 and beyond.

We have already begun to lay the groundwork for this ambitious project through our existing school and community gardens, farmers market, and food pantries. We are networking with local farmers to recruit them to act as mentors. Together, we can make a food system for us, our neighbors, our family.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Facebook

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Hi, I want to create a network with you.
Email;- vdcrangpur@gmail.com

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