The folks at Tahoe Food Hub knew there were families facing food insecurity in our area, but they never realized to just what extent — until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Enter the Giving Box program. Since April 1, they have delivered more than 3,500 boxes of fresh produce to residents in need, an effort made possible solely through the generosity of the community with $70,000 in donations to the Food Hub’s Feed Your Neighbor program.

While sizable donations from local individuals and organizations including the Tahoe Mountain Resorts Foundation, Elder Group Tahoe Real Estate, and the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation have helped the program to grow, it truly blossomed with the literal click of a button.

It was just about a year ago when Food Hub added an option to donate a Giving Box during the checkout process on their website for their popular Harvest to Order produce box program, through which up to 40 boxes were sold on a weekly basis. Harvest to Order provides customers with the opportunity to place an order online for a box  filled with a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, all of which are harvested at nearby farms. Available in two sizes, the smaller $20 box was enough to feed one to two people, while the larger $30 box was enough for up to four. 

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Upon checkout, customers are presented with the option of donating a $20 box for neighbors in need. Things were off to a bit of a slow start with a handful of boxes being donated here and there, but unexpectedly exploded this past spring when service industry workers found themselves unemployed as the novel coronavirus spurred state mandates, shuttering much of the local economy. 

The program started when local business Kelly Brothers Painting expressed a desire to pledge $100 every month to those facing food insecurity. “It was such a great idea that we developed a program around it and shared the idea with other businesses,” Food Hub Director Susie Sutphin said. “But it didn’t take off like we had hoped.” 

Then COVID hit.

In March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom required all nonessential businesses to close due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tahoe/Truckee tourist economy was hit hard. A great part of that included the restaurant and hospitality service industries, employees of which suddenly found themselves out of work, not knowing when their next paycheck would come.

“We were seeing people facing food insecurity for the first time,” Sutphin said. “The whole lid has been blown off in the last six months.”

The Food Hub first started offering Giving Boxes to restaurant workers who had become unemployed, donating 10 per week. With growing interest and only a limited number available, the boxes were distributed through a lottery system.

As COVID started to seep into everyday life back in early spring, the Food Hub started to see an increase in the number of people purchasing Harvest to Order boxes online, growing from 40 per week to a hundred and finally up to 200 boxes — within a two-week span. Then the unexpected happened: With more and more people finding themselves out of work due to mandated business closures, people were looking for ways to help out their neighbors in need. The number of people clicking on that donation button during checkout skyrocketed.

“We thought there was a glitch in the system,” Sutphin recalled. In a seven-day period, the number of boxes donated weekly had shot from an average of eight to 10 up to 70.

By May, with monetary contributions and donations of Giving Boxes holding steady and restaurants starting to reopen, fewer service industry workers were in need of Giving Boxes. Sutphin reached out to Kat Soltanmorad, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. Tahoe Food Hub has been partnering with TTUSD since 2012, and with approximately 600 families taking part in the district’s free and reduced lunch program, Sutphin knew there were many families who could benefit from a donation of fresh produce.

“As restaurants opened up and people returned to work, fewer people were in need of the Giving Box,” Soltanmorad told Moonshine Ink in an email. “This created an increase in the number of boxes available for donation for our TTUSD families … to an average of 70 boxes a week. There were even times Tahoe Food Hub provided up to 100!”

Speedy delivery: Each week, Tahoe Food Hub provides upwards of 70 — and as many as 100 — Giving Boxes filled with fresh produce to families in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, which are delivered to recipients by TTUSD bus drivers. Courtesy photo

Each week, TTUSD provides milk crates to the Food Hub. The crates are prepared and packed with enough produce to feed a family of four. The TTUSD team then picks up the boxes on Friday mornings and provides same day delivery to families in Truckee, Kings Beach, and Tahoe City.

“We communicate and interact with our families regularly to make sure no one falls through the cracks and their needs are met,” Soltanmorad added. “[The free and reduced lunch] list was one resource to identify those who might be in need. We reached out to families by phone or in-person to confirm if they would like to participate. About 30% of our students are eligible for free meals in our district; we know there may be more eligible.”

In addition to the assistance from Tahoe Food Hub, TTUSD has also been able to help district families through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Seamless Summer program.

“We are so proud of the fact that since March 17, we have provided over 175,000 free meals (breakfasts and lunches) to all children 18 and under in our community,” said Soltanmorad, noting that the program has now been extended through June 30, 2021. “For the first month of the program, our Food Services team and I picked up and delivered the produce boxes. Since June, our TTUSD school bus drivers pick up the boxes and deliver every Friday. It’s truly a community effort!”

Sutphin said it has been “amazing to see the Giving Box program emerge from the pandemic as a shining light of hope!”

Following a booming summer, however, Giving Box donations have now started to subside. But as the pandemic continues, so does uncertainty of the future for many, so the Food Hub is working to keep the program going indefinitely. With the holiday season fast approaching, and COVID numbers on the rise once again, Tahoe Food Hub is appealing to the public to lend a hand by purchasing a Thanksgiving Box for $50. Your donation will include all the ingredients needed for a festive and nutritionally well-rounded Thanksgiving dinner for those who may otherwise go hungry for the holidays.

Learn more about the Giving Box program at tahoefoodhub.org. 

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