Understanding Food Insecurity

Tackling Nevada’s Hunger

By: Michelle Matus

High Desert Farming Initiative manager, Jennifer Ott, walks one of eight hoop houses on the one-acre property. The hoop houses hold several varietals of lettuce, tomatoes, and agricultural experiments intended to discover new crops for Nevada Growers. Photo Source: Michelle Matus

In Nevada, one in six residents doesn’t have access to enough nutritious food to live a healthy lifestyle. The Great Recession saw a 50 percent increase in food insecure households in Nevada, many of those households with children.

According to a 2013 report from feedingamerica.org, households with children reported food insecurity at 20 percent; this is compared to 12 percent of households without children.

In response to this trend, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services implemented a strategic planning process in March 2012, intended to address food security issues in Nevada. This planning process outlined what food security is, and what barriers Nevada faces to become food secure.

Following the strategic planning process, which outlined access to food, food costs, and nutrition of food available in areas of Nevada, the DHHS released an action plan entitled Food Security in Nevada. This action plan outlines several goals to eliminate food insecurity in Nevada, defined as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.

In response to the action plan, Gov. Brian Sandoval issued an executive order on Feb. 12, 2014, to establish the Governor’s Council on Food Security. The council, headed by First Lady Kathleen Sandoval, was created to implement the goals of Food Security in Nevada and improve Nevadans’ quality of life by increasing access to nutritious food throughout the state.

The next meeting for the Council on Food Security is Wednesday, Dec. 3, in Carson City. The agenda for the meeting includes the introduction of First Lady Sandoval’s public service announcement video on food security and a presentation by Matthew Beltrami, impact and advocacy associate at Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Beltrami is expected to report on the findings of his school Breakfast Survey, which was intended to understand how breakfast is being served in schools and what access students have to breakfast options. As of publishing deadline, Beltrami has not commented on his findings in the state.

December 3 will be the council’s fourth meeting since it’s inception in February 2014. Prior meetings have primarily laid the plan for the council, with the July 30 meeting crafting the vision of the council. It was proposed in the meeting minutes that the focus of the council is on school lunch programs. Breakfast programs were further added to the vision, per meeting minutes for the Sept. 30 meeting.

Students examine fresh eggs at Urban Roots Educational Farm in Reno. Forty-six percent of the students come to the farm on learning scholarships made possible by grants through the organization. Photo Source: Michelle Matus

As described by the Council on Food Security, Northern Nevada faces many obstacles and logistical challenges in tackling the problem of hunger that will not simply be addressed by providing school breakfast and lunch programs. The issue is complex. Outlined below are three key elements in the understanding of food security in Nevada.

Food security doesn’t only involve putting food on the table.

“Food security itself is a direct result of inflation, food costs, and unemployment rates”, said Angela Owings, food security strategist for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. “While we may not have a lot of control over food security, how we work with those that are food insecure is what is important in how we address their obstacles. And that is why we pull in employment opportunities and housing and other resources as well.”

This multi-faceted approach allows the DHHS to assess those most at risk and offer programs to benefit them, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This program has played a part in combating food insecurity in Nevada by giving low-income families the ability to purchase and maintain regular access to food.

But, SNAP has seen reductions in funding at the federal level, leaving many families without sufficient funds for food.

“We get very anxious and concerned when Congress can’t agree on a farm bill and they are breaking out SNAP and threatening to grant that out directly to states. It would be a total and utter disaster if they disembowel that program because we would have hunger on an unprecedented scale,” said Bran Burton, CEO of Three Square food bank in Southern Nevada, in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun last year.

The reduction to SNAP, as reported by the Food Research and Action Center, “is about 5.5 percent of the maximum allotment.” Thus, the impact on families will depend on the household size and benefit allotment.

This reduction affects families and children on the SNAP program in Nevada, creating more obstacles in the fight for food security.

Squash, donated to Urban Roots by Lattin Farms in Fallon, Nev. will be used to teach the young campers about a local and inexpensive fall crop. Photo Source: Michelle Matus

The USDA has continually ranked Nevada last in the nation for school breakfast and lunch participation. This fact leaves thousands of children across the nation without food to start the day. According to Angela Owings, food security strategist, one main goals of the Council on Food Security is to provide free and reduced-cost lunches to more children who qualify.

The Food Research and Action Center reports that Nevadans are not sufficiently feeding low-income children. In the 2009–10 school year (the most recent study available), Nevada served fewer than 35 breakfasts for every 100 low-income children receiving lunch. That means that 65 children out of a 100 could be offered a free or reduced-cost breakfast, but are going without.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and First Lady Kathleen Sandoval have committed themselves to promoting school breakfast as an integral part of a school day. To kick off this initiative, the Nevada School Breakfast Challenge will commence in January 2015. Schools are encouraged to participate and, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, “will receive technical assistance and equipment to improve their breakfast programs.” Awards and prizes will be given in the spring to schools with the highest participation rates.

Fewer Nevada growers means less food security

Food security in Nevada hinges upon the state’s ability to produce food that can be distributed to local markets, schools, and customers. According to the 2013 Nevada Agriculture Report, “Nevada is importing approximately nine times current in-state production, in commodities already successfully grown in Nevada.” Nevada has the ability to grow many products it chooses to import. To alleviate the economic disconnect, more growers are needed to meet the demands of food needs within the state.

“By supporting small growers in our region, and providing an outlet for them to sell their goods and distribute their goods, we believe we are enhancing food security by just the fact that those growers are able to exist,” said Meghan Collins, human resources and outreach coordinator for the Great Basin Community Food Cooperative.

Jennifer Ott, HDFI manager cuts and inspects lettuce that will be sold to the University of Nevada, Reno dining services. Photo Source: Michelle Matus

For local growers to sell to larger grocery chains, such as Whole Foods, they must carry a multi-million dollar insurance policy. Many small growers do not have the financial means to cover such a policy and therefore have fewer options to sell their goods. The Great Basin Community Food Cooperative is designed to aid farmers in getting their product to market without having to hold a million dollar insurance policy.

Insurance policies are not the only barrier for small farms to getting products on grocery shelves. The closest processing plant to Reno for fresh produce is Sacramento. By shipping food out of state to be processed, the food leaves farms several days before it will be consumed and sits on trucks, in the processing plant, and, finally, is returned to the area to be consumed. The food is no longer as fresh as it could be, and a portion of the money for the produce is spent out of state at the processing plant.

“To have our school systems buy local, [they can buy] anything that doesn’t have to be processed [like] cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and snap peas. Anything else, watermelon wedges or cubes, zucchini sticks, strawberries with the tops cut off, can be grown in Nevada, transported to Sacramento, processed and bagged and then shipped back here,” said Jennifer Ott, manager of the High Desert Farming Initiative at the University of Nevada, Reno.

A one-acre growing facility on the Valley Road agricultural experiment property near UNR, the High Desert Farming Initiative is a hands-on learning laboratory in agro-business systems. The HDFI acts as an educational research center for farming initiatives in Northern Nevada with the aim of offering assistance to the agricultural community.

The lack of a processing plant in Northern Nevada significantly reduces the availability of local produce being offered in area schools. The practice of shipping food out of state to be cleaned and processed takes several days, limiting the type of food that can withstand the journey to Sacramento and back.

The HDFI could have an answer to the fresh produce-processing dilemma that faces Northern Nevada growers.

“With our wash and pack shed here, the Nevada Department of Agriculture got really excited about this as potentially putting some equipment in and opening it up to the public,” said Ott. “That is a pipe dream. It probably won’t happen for a couple of years, but it is definitely a possibility because it is needed.”

Local, non-governmental organizations are fulfilling the need

Organizations like Urban Roots, an educational non-profit in Reno, and the Great Basin Community Food Cooperative are implementing their own plans to address food security in Northern Nevada. In working with local farmers, the co-op is providing the economic ability for small-scale farmers to earn a living and support their own families.

Volunteer counselors at Urban Roots assist campers in watering seedlings that will be planted in hoop houses later in the season. Photo Source: Michelle Matus

Additionally, Urban Roots and the co-op launched a scholarship program in October 2014 to help address issues of food security. The scholarship program offered low-income families the ability to send their children to an educational farm camp at Urban Roots and the parents attend a two-hour workshop at the co-op to learn about buying local, organic food on a budget.

“Urban Roots’ relationship with the co-op lately has been cemented in how we can help local and low income families shop in this area,” said Kim Daniel, education director at Urban Roots. “Sometimes local or organic food has a reputation of being pricier, but the people at the coop think that it’s just a matter of learning how to shop for those things and what to do with it.”

The Food Security in Nevada action plan envisions a future for Nevada that relies upon the coordination of government, local organizations, neighbors, schools and businesses to succeed.

“Nevada’s future can be one where farmers work with school districts to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for students’ meals, and where neighbors coordinate with neighbors to start community supported agricultural projects”, states the action plan.

Northern Nevada is not lacking in community leaders willing to address food insecurity.

Ott said, “There are a lot of really great people in this state that are working towards solving this problem, and I think that as a group we can do it.”

Last updated: Dec 1, 2014

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