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Photo courtesy of Daphne Hougard
The story of the Tahoe Food Hub has a lot of moving parts and can be hard to capture in a press interview but Laura Brown with the "The Union" in Nevada City/Grass Valley, CA nailed it! We so appreciate her thoughtful reporting and comprehensive coverage of who we are and what we want to do. Below is an excerpt but for the full story, click here.

An emerging nonprofit group called the Tahoe Food Hub is reaching out to foothill farmers in Western Nevada County in an effort to supply restaurants and natural food stores in the Truckee-Tahoe region with fresh, locally grown produce.

If done well, the project has the potential to reduce the headache of marketing and distribution while securing a steady stream of revenue for local agriculture, say some local farmers.  A food hub aggregates food from regional producers, stores it, markets it and distributes it within a local area, according to the Tahoe Food Hub’s website.

“We’re mirroring a national food system but doing it on a regional level,” said Susie Sutphin, co-executive director of the Tahoe Food Hub.

Food hubs help small-scale producers find new markets, provide local communities with healthy, ecologically grown food and educates consumers about the importance of sustainable agriculture and the positive ripple effect of buying local. Read the whole story here...


 
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Photo courtesy of Daphne Hougard
Recently, I've been playing with a soapbox idea about the misunderstanding behind the meaning of CSA. And for good reason...Just the other day, I saw a poster where a farmer was promoting their CSA program but no where on the poster did it explain what CSA meant or stood for.

Why? Because most people associate CSA with meaning "the delivery of a weekly box of vegetables" where a person pays in advance to share in a farmer's risk and celebration of that season's harvest.

But...CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" which is a lot richer and goes lot deeper than just a  vegetable subscription. I'm not knocking veggie box programs and farmers' markets. They are responsible for the sustainble, food movement in this country but its time to take it to the next level and truly support our local agriculture by providing small-scale farms with a variety of distribution models beyond direct-to-consumer but to wholesale markets like restaurants, grocery stores, schools and hospitals. The whole purpose of the food movement is to get regionally produced, ecologically grown food to more people. To do that we have to make it available. Veggie boxes don't work for everyone and farmers' markets are only one day a week. The answer is not more farmers' markets. Farmer's markets require a lot of a farmer's time and money. And only 5% of people shop at farmers' markets. We need to get good food in more places everyday! By opening up wholesale markets to farmers and ranchers, we start to build a regional food system and we  rely on what's available within 100-150 miles. Small farms can't compete on price and volume in a national food system but they can compete on a regional level. It creates new opportunity for them, more healthy food for us and money circulates locally for stronger, more resilient economies.

...That was meant to be an introduction for an article I wrote about how veggie box programs kick-started the food movement. It just hit newsstands in the recent issue of edible Reno-Tahoe. Read the article, "Behind the Box" by clicking here. When I was writing the article, it got me thinking about this misunderstanding of CSA's. I've developing this theory "behind CSA's" ever since. And I've realized that the essence of "Community Supported Agriculture" is building a regional food system. Similar to what we are doing at the Tahoe Food Hub. The introduction above is really the third development of this theory. The second draft appeared on the food blog Handpicked Nation on January 3rd.

 
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Recently, I was asked to be a guest blogger for Handpicked Nation, an authentic food & farm site. I wandered around in a field of possible stories and settled on one of my hot new topics...the realization that  CSA doesn't stand for a "weekly box of veggies" but rather "community supported agriculture." And what does it mean to help farmers get their food to market before it gets to your fork. Below is an excerpt from the article and for the complete article click here.

“Farm-to-Table” has recently become a buzzy catchphrase. It has done a wonderful job of promoting the harvests of small-scale farms and helping people conceptualize a local food system. But before food can go from farm-to-table, it has to get to market. And that can be a huge step for a lot of small-scale farmers.

Many farmers have great business and marketing skills but all lack time; the time to get their food to market. It takes a lot of energy and money to cultivate and maintain retail relationships, develop and disseminate promotional materials for direct-to-consumer programs, not to mention the travel required to attend farmers’ markets. Infrastructure needs to be established to help small-scale farmers get over this hurdle. And food hubs provide this opportunity. They not only help farmers get over the farm-to-market hurdle but help the sustainable food movement get over the proverbial Big Ag hurdle.

For the complete article go to Handpicked Nation...


 
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Tom Philpott is one of my most favorite food and agriculture writers. I first started reading his stories when he was at Grist.org. The other day, a friend forwarded me his May 2012 article in Mother Jones entitled, "Economies of Kale."

Catchy name aside, this article contains the meat and potatoes of how a regional food system can single-handedly stimulate local economies. For example...bookstores and clothing stores most often have to buy their goods from far away but food can, and should, be sourced locally. When sourced locally, $.45 of every dollar stays in the greater region versus a measly $.15 when spent at chain stores. Studies have shown that when money circulates locally, economies become stronger because there is more sales tax revenue which stimulates the economy.

In the article, Tom quotes, economist, Ken Meter. I had a brief encounter with Ken a few months ago but I had no idea he was so well-known in the field. It was during an ice breaker exercise at a Slow Food  conference this past April! I had all of 60-seconds to introduce myself but knew enough from his introduction to get his business card. He has since been a tremendous help in gathering data for our North Tahoe foodshed assessment.

 
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Building blocks to a Sustainable Food Community
I've often referred to my independent study on sustainable food systems as my un-accredited PhD program. Over the past seven months, I've handcrafted an education program that brought together learning experience and opportunities that would be the most meaningful to me...interning on organic farms, taking short courses and workshops and interviewing experts in the field.

Last night, I had the chance to present my findings and solutions for building a sustainable food community at the Tools for the Table speaker series in Truckee hosted by the Genesa Living Foundation. It felt like I was defending my thesis but fortunately, the audience took it easy on me and didn't challenge my proposal ;)

The pyramid to the left sums up my theory in a nutshell. To have a sustainable food system, you must have the building blocks to support it. First, you need a foodshed assessment in order to measure your community's food security against its dependence on the national food system. A foodshed assessment will provide a food policy council the information they need to develop a food plan for their society. The formation of a regional food hub will provide a market which will encourage more local food production. And those new food producers will be born from farmer and specialty-food incubator programs.

Once there is a solid foundation, equity will start to be seen in the supply chain starting with the grower all the way to the consumer. As more land is put into agricultural production and partnerships are developed with food, abundant, regional neighbors, the community will become more food secure. Financial incentives which encourage consumers and businesses to spend money locally will be implemented to build the regional food system. Regional networks  keeps money circulating locally. When money stays local it stimulates the local economy to make it more prosperous and resilient. Whatcha get is a sustainable food community!

 
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Me sailing to my blue sky dreams for a new food future :)
As I've moved through this food journey, I've called upon my blog to help me clarify my thoughts and work through perplexing questions. Now that I'm back in Tahoe and building a career around food, I find myself calling upon my dear friend "sustainability" way too much in order to explain what it is I'm doing. I know it's an overused word and in the moment before I say it, I'm hopeful that I will think of a new word or phrase. But alas, out it comes.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
Regardless, it's a great word and I believe in what it means! In its solitary form, sustainability represents "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (as coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development). Toss in food and my favorite definition for sustainable agriculture is...and I admit, I forget where I got this from..."land management practices which balance food production with the conservation of ecosystems through soil biology and biodiversity." Therefore, I conclude that the sustainable food systems we build today will create an equitable supply chain from grower to consumer both now and in the future. Equitable being the operative word!

Let me develop that a little further...If the land, the farmers, the workforce and the consumers are treated fairly and with respect to their needs and services there will be equity in the marketplace. When there is justice in the food system everyone wins! The soil can sustain itself and support a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. And the marketplace can take care of its workers and customers because the economy will realize we are all customers. And it is in our valued interest to meet the needs of the people first before profit. By taking care of our ecosystem services, the return on investment will be a thriving community not a dividend.

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My vision for a new food paradigm
SO WHAT EXACTLY AM I TRYING TO DO?
I want to build food-focused communities. Communities that are invested in their food security. It begins with how and where the food was grown. To be food secure, you first must know the land can provide indefinitely. Only sustainable agricultural practices can provide that. Once we secure the food and the land is happy, we need to make it accessible by creating an equitable marketplace for farmers to sell their food at a fair price and at a price the community can afford. Food access includes educating people about diet, scratch cooking skills as well as food buying decisions at the home, school and institutional level. An informed eater will realize the positive impacts that buying local can provide and that sustainable agriculture is as much about sustainable, economic development. Food sovereignty is when food security and food access coalesce. It results in communities that are engaged in food policy. They come together to design a system that works for them ecologically, culturally and economically.

When I hear, "How are we going to feed the world?". I say, "We first need to think in terms of building self-reliant communities that can feed themselves." If ever community did that, we will have fed the world. Start by evaluating all available land resources to see how each region can grow as much of their own food as possible. It will require saving farmland from development, creating more urban gardens, using greenhouses to extend the growing season and establishing vertical gardens in re-purposed vacant buildings. In the process, it will have created jobs for new farmers, new specialty food producers and all the people along the supply chain. Trade with other areas will of course still exist but local economies will be stronger and more resilient if able to provide more for themselves.

CLOSE TO HOME
In my community, I want to leverage all available food services in the Sierra Nevada in order to build a regional food system that can support the majority of our food needs. It will increase trade regionally between communities bolstering local economies. Money will circulate in the region encouraging more, small farms and area food producers but it w will also spark job growth and new business in other industries because that's what happens when money stays local. Economic drivers that promote a 25% shift to buying local will be implemented. By keeping money in the region, it will stoke the fire to ensure the model's longevity. I've quoted Mother Jones magazine on this one before and I'll do it again..."Fix the food...fix the country."

That's my BHAG: Big-Hairy-Audacious Goals! Gotta have'em!

 
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What was a Friday lunch with the Director of City Fresh, Nick Swetye, rolled over into a Farm Bill roundtable with Ohio Senator, Sherrod Brown.That's pretty much how it happened...Nick had a 2pm engagement and asked if i would be interested in attending. It took me all of a split second to respond, "Yes!"

Senator Brown was fresh off the plane from Washington D.C. and President Obama's job speech the night before. In preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill, the Senator was here to get a better understanding of the food climate in NE Ohio. He wanted to hear first hand from his constituents what they wanted in a farm bill. Brown's office had gathered a diverse group of area representatives including institutional food buyers, area grocers, farmers' market coordinators, university ag extensions, growing co-ops and food policy coordinators. The Senator opened the conversation with, "I want to make a Farm Bill that works." He went on to explain that it is not just a bill for farms but a bill for "nutrition, health, food, energy and environment."

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Everyone had gone around the table giving the Senator their 1-2-3 pitch when he threw a curve ball, "why aren't there more African-Americans at this table?" He was right! Black residents represent the majority in Cleveland and many of its area suburbs. And one of Cleveland's biggest concerns is addressing access to healthy, quality food in the inner city. The picture above captures the moment when Senator Brown (middle, blue shirt) set the stage for farmer, Eric Hooper who was seated to his right (orange shirt). Up till know, the comments carried the usual, but accurate, food rhetoric, i.e. redesign the subsidy program, repurpose urban areas for farming, jobs, etc. Eric immediately gained the room's attention with his straight talk, "hire people within the system to build the system." Mr. Hooper was loaded with all kinds of great ideas like a Peace Corps type initiative that trained urban farm programs. He held the floor for about five minutes leaving a powerful energy floating in the room. He used the word, "tenacity," a few times to drive his point. I liked that! Here is a picture of Eric admiring the community garden outside the facility. You gotta love it...raised, straw-bale beds placed directly on the blacktop. Just another example that you can grow food anywhere. You just need "tenacity!"

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The location of the roundtable could not have been more appropriate....the newly acquired home of Communty Greenhouse Partners (CGP). It's the building and grounds of an old church on Cleveland's east side. About three years ago, the Cleveland diocese closed 40 Catholic churches. St. George's Lithuanian Church was one of them. It fell quickly into disrepair. But under new ownership there are huge plans for this 67,000 sq.ft. space including a commercial kitchen on the first floor, food co-op on the second and a community center on the third where the church parish congregated. CGP's ultimate dream is to become Cleveland's first food hub aggregating locally produced food and distributing it out into the community. Ideally, food suppliers would be a myriad of area farms, urban gardens as well as a place for backyard gardens to sell their produce and create a small business for themselves. The master plan (pictured below) shows the main building and surrounding grow areas with greenhouses, orchards and raised-garden beds. The project is the vision of Timothy Smith. Timothy was transformed by one of the very food films, FRESH, that encouraged me to purse a career in sustainable food systems. I'm very impressed with what he has been able to accomplish in just two years. I hope to be as successful. One of his staff members stood up during the meeting with a strong reminder, "Sustainability projects need one-time catalyst money to get off the ground but then they are true to their word and are, as the name implies, sustainable!"

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After the meeting adjourned, I asked the Senator's staff how they would glean key items for inclusion in Mr. Brown's Senate speech. I got a wishy-washy, political answer but I'm confident that the Senator had a few, solid take-away items which resonated with everyone's comment...small and mid-scale farms can not compete on price and volume in the traditional food model. But a regional food hub could aggregate local food so it could compete. The last to speak was City Fresh's own, Nick Swetye. He summed it up for the Senator in two simple bullets, 1) create food hubs and 2) generate consumer interest and demand.

 
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My Dad handed me a receipt the other day with the price of two milks circled...one was organic at $4.69/half-gallon and the other was a non-organic brand at $2.39/half-gallon. It demonstrated the dilemma consumers have every day...which do you buy? It's easy to guess that organic is better for you (and better tasting) but at twice the price, is it worth it?

One price wasn't listed, organic milk produced locally. It can be a little harder to source and costs a little extra but it is worth it. It's not Gucci-milk. And it shouldn't necessarily be cheaper because it is local. It's what milk should cost. Getting the lowest price may be okay for what fuels our cars but not what fuels our bodies. Whether it is milk or cookies, we need to be okay with spending a little more on our food. There is a lot of truth in the saying, "you are what you eat." and in the case of cheap food, "you get what you paid for."

Stapled to the receipt was an article my Dad had clipped from the Cleveland Plain Dealer about how conventional, dairy farmers where being impacted by the increase in feed costs, a.k.a. grains, like corn and soy. Higher feed costs drives up the price of milk and other food. If all dairy cows were pasture-raised, farmers wouldn't be as vulnerable to the fluctuations in feed prices. But more importantly, the cows would be eating a diet they were designed for...grass. Cows' digestive systems - with their five stomachs - weren't designed to eat corn and other grains but that's what they are fed because it's typically the cheapest option. Unfortunately, when corn prices go up, it's not as simple as just switching to grass. Farmers are tied to a corn-based system. Converting to a grass-based diet would mean a major capital investment in their operation. Conventional dairy farms don't have ample pasture-land like they use too where cows would graze in one field and be rotated to another to let the grass regenerate. What is ironic about the article is they provided their own solution. They talk about the olden-times when milk was supplied locally from small-scale producers. Hhmmm? Maybe it's time to repeat the past. Not only would local production be fresher but cows could be raised accordingly and the dairy market would support a regional, resilient economy.

Diet and living conditions all play a role in producing a better cup of milk. So it makes sense that grass-fed and pasture-raised cows would produce milk with healthier fat content and more nutrients than their conventionally raised cousins. After all, they have five stomachs for a reason. Studies show that grass-fed cows produce milk that is 60% higher in beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk - fatty acids like linoleic that help to reduce heart disease. And by munching on a diverse variety of field grasses, cows get a mouth-full of nutrients. Each grass is a like a vitamin providing a different nutrient. Strip that diet down to grain and you take away all those vital nutrients. If the cow doesn't get the nutrients, then our milk doesn't get them either. One of the reasons grass-fed cows don't need antibiotics is because they get the antibodies they need from a complex diet of different grasses. Dairy farmers are actually grass farmers first. Or at least they should be.

Here is where it gets tricky, however...it's not as simple as just looking for the organic label. As demand for organic milk has increased, larger, organic dairies have emerged. They are starting to resemble conventional operations where cows get little or no access to pasture which leads to diets supplemented with grain, but organic grain. Rest easy though, the cows are treated humanely and without the use of antibiotics or bovine growth hormones. Phew! Fortunately, the USDA has begun to tighten the guidelines and require that all organic, dairy cows receive a minimum of 120 pasture-days/year.

So while organic milk is better for you, you still need to ask the question, "where did my milk come from?" Advocating for small-scale food production that supplies a regional system will make it easier for farmers to use organic methods like rotational grazing and easier for consumers to have a closer relationship to their farmers. It makes both parties more accountable. Doing a little research does require that consumers take a more active role in their food purchases. We wouldn't buy a car without researching it first or shopping around to make sure we get the best price. Why should our food be any different.

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

Brian Donahue's essay, Reclaiming the Commons, had me grabbing for a pen. I know it's a good article when I want to underline, highlight or take notes. In this context, "The Commons" refers to the shared lands of a region by ALL it's people. In every society, you need a balance of both private and common land to build a strong local economy and to preserve culture. As of late, urban sprawl and unbridled development have created an imbalance. Brian's main objective to "reclaiming the commons" is to urbanize sustainably. He started a nonprofit based on these principles for Weston, MA called Land's Sake.

The land most at risk is that on the outskirts of large urban areas, land to which people want to relocate while at the same time remaining close to the metropolitan hub. Once-working farmland is being sold off and zoned for residential, commercial and industrial use. How do we preserve this farmland and accommodate the pressure on suburbia to expand? Brian explains, "in regard to land, a community must agree on a common interest with a shared land ethic in order to create local economies which are land appropriate." He's basically saying, we can develop but let's just be smart about it and think how economic decisions impact not only the land but the people. If we did this, things like mountain top removal would never have happened. Mountain top removal is neither land appropriate or instituted with a shared land ethic. To start solving these big questions, we need to evaluate land based on three criteria: will the land be used for residental/commercial, farmland, or forest? Those questions will determine if the land is to be privately held or shared by the commons. In some cases, you can have both. For instance, instead of subdividing a 100-acre farm into 20 sublots, how about putting those same 20 homes on one acre each keeping the other 80 acres as "working" farmland for the community?

Brian approaches agrarianism in it's purest form...as community. The kind of community we all think about when we think of the word "community"...your neighbors, town hall meetings, the welcome wagon, little league, pancake breakfasts, etc. He wants us to view land through the same lens with which we view our community, that is, with respect. In sum, Brian advocates that agrarians are sharing their knowledge outside of their own farms with others in their community to take a holistic approach to the entire landscape.

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

Before there was Michael Pollan there was Wendell Berry - farmer, poet, activist. In his agrarian essay, "The Whole Horse," he asks us to use agrarian values and start at the local level when tackling some of our biggest environmental and economic problems.  

Wendell's thoughts are deep and you need to sit with his words for a while and let them simmer. I got the impression that he wants his readers to be critical thinkers and ask questions. As I marinated in his text, I came away with this...as consumers and citizens, we become outraged that there can be e-coli in our spinach or that an oil rig can explode and spill millions of gallons into the ocean. For a while, it's all over the news. It appears someone will pay and it will never happen again. During the outrage phase, we see a flaw in our system that has been identified and believe things will change...food safety will be improved, drilling regulations will be increased. When actually, another news story takes over, someone's hand was slapped and business carries on as usual. Nothing really changes. Primarily because we use the same industrial methodology to fix an industrial problem. Until we take a whole systems approach to right these wrongs, can we really solve the problem. A whole systems approach would help us realize that things like "oil dispersants" in the Gulf disaster are just going to hide the problem, not fix it. Quick follow-up story: BP has asked for permission to begin offshore drilling again in the Gulf region. Worse still...they are funding a lobby group that opposes regulations to offshore drilling.

What Wendell really came to talk about is economics, local economics...The conservation movement is one of the biggest proponents for local issues like air quality, watersheds and preservation but they talk little about the economics. The conservation movement could be strengthened and enlarged if economics were more part of the dialogue. It would help conservationists see what they have in common with those fighting to save things like their ranches, markets and schools. In doing so, more people would join the conservation movement.

Wendell goes on to explain that "economy" is intrinsic to agrarian culture. But because industrialism is an economy first and a "culture" second, agrarians are seen just as country, subsistence farmers. The real difference is...when building markets, agrarianism considers the economy and culture simultaneously through a local lens versus independently and globally. Some may think that agrarianism is elitist and proposes that everyone be a farmer. Quite the contrary. It advocates for a balanced economy and communication between stakeholders. By using an agrarian approach, "any manufacturing proposal would be formed and scaled to fit the land, ecosystem and community and be employed and owned by the local people." When this is achieved, "consumers who understand their economy will not tolerate destruction of their ecosystem."