Lyon County, Nevada – In Lyon County, located in rural northern Nevada, a recurring theme from community members and staff from schools, social services and health care agencies was a dream to increase access to affordable, local produce. Healthy Communities Coalition decided to make that dream a reality by working with volunteers and diverse groups to create a regional “healthy food hub”.
Strategies to Create More Access to Local Food: After the 2008 economic crisis that hit the Lyon County, Nevada region hard, the nonprofit Healthy Communities Coalition began strategically addressing the clear need for more access to locally and sustainably grown, affordable food. The Coalition, composed of hundreds of community volunteers, dozens of diverse local, state, federal and tribal groups, a small staff and a dedicated board of directors, collaborated with partner groups and began applying for and receiving USDA and other grants to fund collective impact strategies. The Coalition’s hopes for a unique regional healthy food hub were outlined in a Rural Connections article: https://wrdc.usu.edu/files-ou/publications/pub__4469171.pdf
The collaborative work paid off. During the 2012 Western Nevada Food System Summit in Silver Springs, Nevada, keynote speaker USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan commented, “[The USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food] Compass map shows local food projects around the country supported by USDA over the last few years. The cluster of dots in your region really stood out. You are truly leading your state when it comes to these issues. What the map can’t show, but what you well know, is that these dots are all connected through the work of the Healthy Communities Coalition and its partners. You’re putting the pieces together to build a strong regional food system, and I want you to know that USDA is your partner in this effort.” (Link to video of Merrigan’s keynote address: https://youtu.be/5LE87gaNX1Q )
Regional Healthy Food Hub: Today in 2017, the results of the work to promote a healthier food system can be seen in 3 volunteer-powered food pantries, plus healthy cooking classes, “grow your own food” workshops, community gardens, a self-sustaning nonprofit garden nursery (Community Roots) and multiple farmers markets that accept WIC, SNAP, USDA senior coupons, cash, etc. Among numerous awards for collaborative, multi-sector, multi-agency work on food security and food systems was Silver Stage Food Pantry manager Kathy McIntosh’s statewide “Points of Light” Award in 2016. Read about it at this link: https://healthycomm.org/2016/10/03/kathy-mcintosh-wins-governors-points-of-light-award/
School, Farm, Community, and Coalition Partnerships: At the center of the strategic plan to increase access to locally grown food, as well as education about why such access is key to good health, is the partnership among local farmers, community volunteers, Healthy Communities Coalition and the schools within Lyon County School District’s 2,000 square mile region. Today there are nearly a dozen thriving school gardens, hoop houses, and composting/ food waste reduction projects, plus school garden clubs and very popular salad bars with produce from school gardens and local farms.
In 2016, Healthy Communities was recognized with the “Gold Potato Award” from the Nevada Department of Agriculture for its support of school gardens. (Link to video showing school gardens, farmers markets, etc. https://youtu.be/yr-D7xRwSTs )
More Students Choosing Vegetables and Fruits: A combination of new federal regulations on school meals, more pleasing ways of presenting vegetables and fruits, plus Healthy Communities’ use of “Farm to School” strategies have been very successful in helping students choose healthier options during school meals. Cindy Rainsdon, Lyon School District’s food service supervisor, reported that previously only 10% of students eating school meals chose to take fruits and vegetables as part of their breakfasts or lunches, compared to 70% selecting fruits and vegetables today. Local farmers and school gardens are supplying some of the produce for the schools’ salad bars. She notes, “We’ve been very successful at implementing salad bars and providing a greater variety for students.”
Cooking, Nutrition Education and Gardens: In 2011, Dayton Elementary 5th grade teacher Michele Paul 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.” USDA in Nevada’s tour of the Dayton garden in 2011 is detailed at this link: http://thisisreno.com/2011/12/coalition-connections-create-nourishment-for-rural-communities-hard-hit-by-economic-slump/
STEM Education, Food Waste Reduction and School Gardens: Fifth grade teacher Bob Gardner’s class had helped turn the Dayton Elementary School garden into a living learning laboratory that was highlighted in a 2012 USDA national blog and held up as a model project. USDA featured the garden in a blog post: https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/12/21/school-garden-turns-living-learning-laboratory-nevada-fifth-graders
By 2014, the awards for the school gardens were really starting to roll in. For example, the GREEN Team, responsible for the school garden, hoop house, compost and school-wide food waste reduction system at Silver Stage Elementary in Silver Springs, earned a Pioneer Award from the Northern Nevada Development Authority. The GREEN team, including 6th grade students and educators Rachel Leach, Tamara King and Becki Schwindt, were awarded the honor for “Best Green Practices” in a five-county region. Due to their innovative work, the GREEN team continues to rake in cash awards in contests, invitations to speak at regional and statewide conferences on food issues, and they’re frequently featured in newspapers and publications such as Edible Reno Tahoe and Nevada Farm to School’s newsletter. Some of the team’s many accomplishments are described in this 2014 article: http://thisisreno.com/2014/02/silver-springs-students-receive-national-attention-food-projects/
Caleb Holley was selected by the Northern Nevada Development Authority for a 2016 Pioneer Award as the “Most Outstanding Student” in a 5 county region based on his work leading the garden club at Sutro Elementary in Dayton where students learn about organic gardening and hoop house agriculture. Caleb has provided many hours of volunteer work to support various Healthy Communities’ healthy food hub programs such as the garden club. Read more about the 2016 Pioneer Awards here: https://healthycomm.org/2016/04/11/pioneer-awards-honor-excellence-in-a-5-county-region/
Teamwork: Healthy Communities director Wendy Madson writes, “Teach children to grow their own vegetables, to cook their own food, to respect the land and enjoy dirt under their fingernails – that is an education that will last a lifetime! Healthy Communities is proud to team up with Lyon County School District in kick starting nearly a dozen gardens across the District with a goal of 100% school garden participation in Lyon County schools by 2018. These gardens feature hoop houses that extend the growing season, as well as outdoor gardens to keep the food supply growing during the summer and fall months. Children are taught by teachers, local farmers and school garden interns in the process of planting, maintaining and harvesting food for their schools. School gardens offer a hands-on way to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) skills, and the gardens also offer an innovative way to educate youths about helping to sustain themselves and the planet.”