By Emma Schmitz | Special to Moonshineink

Victory gardens during wartime weren’t just for supplementing rations; governments also encouraged populations to grow food to boost morale. Now, “pandemic gardening” addresses both concepts, too, during a different kind of global crisis. And with Community Supported Agriculture farm box patronage at an all-time high, it’s no secret that the general public is thinking deeper about where their food comes from.

As one of the designated essential businesses in California, nurseries became a (physically distant) social haven for locals sheltering in place: “Nurseries are a great place for people to have access to in trying times,” said Nancy Collins, manager of Tahoe Tree Company in Tahoe City, especially when you get to see “old friends and acquaintances at a safe distance.” Collins observed a huge spike in interest in growing food, noting extra time at home and uncertainty within the food supply chain as reasons.

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“The interest was unparalleled this season,” said Christine Bellerose, manager of Truckee nursery Rock and Rose, citing a high demand for seeds, starters, and soil. As suppliers began limiting purchasing for such items, Rock and Rose started “pre-ordering weeks in advance to keep pace with the heavier demands.” Over by the lake, Tahoe Tree Company reiterated that staying stocked has been their biggest hurdle.

The greatest challenge for customers, however, might be getting their new gardens to produce despite our region’s short growing season and unpredictable climate. Collins says Tahoe Tree Company always warns customers about planting too early, declaring Father’s Day as the “magic day [that’s] safe from freezes.” In Truckee, Rock and Rose’s strategies to educate gardeners include clearly organizing plants by hardiness and talking customers through their plant purchases. Fortunately for newbies, Slow Food Lake Tahoe — a local nonprofit that supports sustainable food systems — has moved their usual gardening classes online, which they host in partnership with UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center and UCCE Master Gardeners of Lake Tahoe.

Bellerose of Rock and Rose sees this newfound interest as an opportunity for “children to learn more about living sustainably” as well as for those with a competitive edge. She invites our community of extreme sports enthusiasts to “take that approach with gardening, too — learning something new each year to help take [your] gardens to the next level the following season.”

Even those who provide fresh produce for a living encourage folks to try growing their own. Grace Debbeler, CSA manager at Mountain Bounty Farm in Nevada City, thinks caring for a few crops at home is sure to change the way people relate to food. Although their CSA box membership had been declining over the last few years (in alignment with nationwide trends), once the stay-at-home orders were implemented this spring Mountain Bounty’s CSA numbers almost doubled, climbing “from 565 to 815 in about two weeks.” They maxed out at 850 members around the same time the farm typically transitions to growing all the produce themselves, of which they are deeply proud.

Like many small businesses, the pandemic has forced Little Roots Farm in Truckee to pivot their model by rolling out their own subscription farm box. Little Roots relies on farmer’s markets for most sales (which have been limited this season) and the weekly produce boxes allow for convenient, contactless pickup at the stand.

FARM TO MARKET: The hard-working farm hands at Mountain Bounty Farms bring fresh produce from their Nevada City fields to area farmers markets and via their CSA boxes, available locally through Tahoe Food Hub. Courtesy photos

“More people are realizing the importance of a local food system,” Little Roots co-owner Stacie Schultze observed. Whether that means a shorter length of time from farm to table or fewer hands handling the product, Debbeler of Mountain Bounty Farm agrees. The pandemic has created a “shift for many people to reevaluate where their food is coming from and how many people have touched it from point A to B,” she said. Farms, nurseries, and other organizations focused on sustainable food systems are witnessing this shift.

Susie Sutphin, founder of Tahoe Food Hub, said that “awareness of where our food comes from” may be a silver lining of COVID-19. Because Tahoe Food Hub works directly with local farmers, they haven’t experienced the disruption many other distributors have. “By shortening the supply chain, we can ensure access to fresh, healthy, local food,” Sutphin stated.

Before the pandemic, the Food Hub partnered mostly with restaurants and small grocers. Their online farmer’s market, Harvest to Order, had 40 weekly members. Once coronavirus hit, that number rocketed to 380 members as the farm shop closed to the public. The surge in interest over the last few months has enabled the Food Hub to “to look at new and different ways to support local farms and increase access to local food.”

For those fortunate enough to act on this shortened food supply chain by picking up a weekly box of fresh produce, there’s more you can do to help neighbors with food security issues. Andrea Schaffer, chapter leader of Slow Food Lake Tahoe, noted a rise in volunteer hours in the newly renamed Food Bank Garden they manage in Truckee. (It was formerly known as the Truckee Demonstration Garden.) “It seems like people have increased time to give back to the community and to help us grow food for Sierra Community House,” she said.

NAME RECOGNITION: Slow Food Lake Tahoe’s Truckee Demonstration Garden is now known as the Slow Food Lake Tahoe Food Bank Garden, as produce grown in the Truckee River Regional Park location is donated to families in need through Sierra Community House. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

In a likewise effort to create equal access to local food, the Tahoe Food Hub has taken advantage of increasing support by launching the Feed Your Neighbor program. At first, Feed Your Neighbor (FYN) was a way to give back to the food and beverage industry that helped Tahoe Food Hub get off the ground, donating to service employees who had been laid off or left with fewer paid hours. Now, FYN also supports “families who participate in the free and reduced lunch program at TTUSD and the Headstart Program of Placer County,” Sutphin said.

The Giving Box initiative, part of the FYN program, functions how it sounds — folks purchasing their own farm boxes each week have the option to donate a box of locally grown produce to someone in need. Since April, private donors, online donations, and community grants (thanks to Tahoe Mountain Resort Foundation, Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, and Elder Group Real Estate Lake Tahoe) have raised over $50,000 and donated over 1,600 Giving Boxes. “It takes a community to build a food system,” Sutphin likes to say.

Like many other socioeconomic sectors, the pandemic has revealed injustice in our food and farming systems. Those of us growing squash during the public health crisis may only be doing it to feed our appetite for something real to touch for once, but a report from the International Panel of Food Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) shows that hundreds of millions of people are on the cusp of hunger. Pandemic gardening and assessing our own food sources can be a gateway to addressing how to achieve food equity for everyone in our communities.

FARM FAMILY: Just some pre-COVID unmasked smiles from the friendly farmers of Mountain Bounty Farms. Courtesy photo

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