TAHOE/TRUCKEE — Much like roots intertwine, seeking sustenance in the Earth’s soil, so does the message of locally sourced food. Its environmental, health and educational benefits grow, shooting up tendrils of collaboration and excitement.
The Tahoe Food Hub is the latest seed to sprout forth, integrating community resources and fueling a renewed buzz about food.
One such event was a partnership with the Squaw Valley Institute and Slow Food Lake Tahoe, bringing Polyface Farms’ Joel Salatin to speak this winter.
His message to the packed Olympic Valley Lodge’s fireplace room was clear: It’s all about poop.
It’s a natural part of a “closed cycle,” where compost is fed to poultry or animals. Their excrement in turn is fertilizer for plants.
The author of “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” available at the Bookshelf in Truckee, is a full-time, third-generation alternative farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoa Valley. Salatin also travels far and wide, spreading words of wisdom.
“Anyone under 40 couldn’t fathom what life was like before the supermarket … before McDonald’s and DiGiorno pizza,” said Salatin. “Half the food we eat won’t rot, will it digest?”
He urged attendees, to much applause, to get rid of the gerbils and parakeets: Get yourself some chickens.
In Belgium, households were given three free chickens. In the first 30 days, it reduced garbage by hundreds of tons of garbage, as the lucky birds were fed kitchen scraps.
It’s a way to close the cycle, keep food sources close to home and stop the “ecological blasphemy.”
Salatin asked rhetorically, “Can we use our big brains to be healers? To massage the ecological womb?”
The answer, in the North Lake Tahoe and Truckee region, is “Yes.”
FROM FOODLUST TO FOOD HUB
One big brain on the scene is Susie Sutphin, who confessed straight up she is consumed by “foodlust,” and has begun a new nonprofit, Tahoe Food Hub, with co-founder and board president Bill Kelly.
“Food hubs are emerging as the foremost way to build regional food systems, leveraging the abundance of local food producers to feed communities,” said Sutphin. “Strengthening a local food system builds equity into the supply chain by creating a fair market for small, ecological farms and providing a community with healthier, more nutritious food that hasn’t traveled far from farm to fork.”
Tahoe Food Hub has four projects: Farm to Market, Healthy Food Access Program, the Community Commercial Kitchen and the Dome Raising Project.
Farm to Market will promote the sourcing and consumption of regionally produced sustainably grown foods. The Healthy Food Access Program will make those same foods accessible to low-income individuals through sliding scale and grant-funded programs, facilitating food donations to Project MANA, the region’s hunger relief agency, and offer a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The Community Commercial Kitchen will incubate specialty food businesses and strengthen the Tahoe-Truckee foodshed.
The piece de résistance, generating activity and interest, is the Dome Raising Project.
“The Dome Raising Project will promote the ability to grow food locally using geodesic domes to harness the same sun that grows our food down the hill,” said Sutphin.
Its first campaign is to build growing domes at schools and hospitals, using them as outdoor classrooms, therapy gardens and micro-farms to grow food for their cafeterias.
Sutphin is the farm manager at the Kelly family’s (of Kelly Brother’s Painting) growing dome, built in October 2011. Known as the Truckee Community Farm, it has had many visitors of late, relishing in tending and harvesting greens such as chard, kale and arugula in the 33-foot geodesic dome greenhouse, produced by Growing Spaces.
Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships (SWEP) visited with their Green Teams, funded by the Shane McConkey Foundation through the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, on March 22. The Green Teams, from Tahoe Lake, Truckee and Kings Beach Elementary Schools are guided by Missy Mohler, SWEP executive director.
“It’s very exciting because the kids have the opportunity to be stewards of little plants, and reap the benefits,” said Mohler. “They grow more appreciative of what they eat, what it takes to grow — so much of doing science should be actually getting your hands in dirt.”
According to Mohler, the students performed energy audits at their schools, and implemented composting programs, thereby reducing cafeteria waste by an average of 85 pounds a day.
“Really, my driving force first started with soil,” said Sutphin. “Treat the soil better and we can grow more food, save energy and feed the microbes.”
FEEDING THE PROJECT
Feeding into the Dome Raising project are many diverse entities, including a grant from the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation for SWEP service learning projects, once the domes are built.
“It teaches children on so many levels … the core of it is about understanding the life cycle and healthier living,” said Mohler.
Kat Soltanmorad, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Food Service director, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Dome Raising Project. “In terms of nurturing the child, we can’t have healthy minds without healthy bodies,” she said. “Dr. Leri, the school board, are very supportive.”
TTUSD already has food education programs in place, including the Nutrition Coalition’s Harvest of the Month, where elementary students investigate seasonal produce. The children learn about the history of the plant, identify parts of the plant, learn the nutritional value, and best of all, taste test the month’s fruit or vegetable.
As a registered dietitian, Soltanmorad is passionate about promoting sustainability while providing healthy meals for students. Already the TTUSD meals are made from scratch when possible, and limit pre-packaged foods.
“Susie is working hard to build the Tahoe Food Hub, helping us source locally, reaching out to local business people,” said Soltanmorad.
“If you want to change the system, you have to build the system,” Sutphin said of moving forward, one baby step at a time.
Her “little thing” right now is helping people understand Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is more than a weekly box of veggies.
She believes true sustainability starts at a community level. We are gong to feed it one community at a time, according to Sutphin.
Sutphin has contacted about 25 farmers in western Nevada County to gauge interest. Farmer Deena Miller of Sweet Roots Farm sees promise in the Tahoe Food Hub. She and her partner, Robbie Martin, grow 60 different vegetables and 50 types of flowers on their three-acre farm. Miller believes the Tahoe Food Hub will become an essential part of the farming business. If done right, the food hub could free up a farmer’s time from marketing duties, allowing them to concentrate on their crops.
“A year before the Berlin Wall came down, no one would have predicted it,” Sutphin mused. “We are metaphorically chipping at this wall (the ‘monster food’ system), all different areas working toward a similar goal: it’s going to cave if we keep moving forward collectively.”
Sutphin believes people are empowered by the potential to grow food locally and increasing food security. TTUSD is a strategic partner working collaboratively with the Parent Teacher Organizations at Truckee and Kings Beach Elementary schools. Sutphin is amazed it’s been a year in planning so far, and visions a soft launch for the projects in 2013-14.
“It’s an organic process … but the community is inspiring, motivating, it’s like a marathon,” said Sutphin.
She encourages community organizations and residents to voice their advocacy and let it be known to community leaders of special districts if you support Tahoe Food Hub.
Freelance reporter Laura Brown contributed to this article. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.