Our Local Food Heroes

volunteers handing out food at interfaith food ministry 3-20Food has the power to bring people together. Even with social distancing practices in place, we have witnessed in these past weeks how our local food and farm community is working together to create more local food resiliency, help out those in need, and build stronger connections.   The local food community we have been building together in Nevada County is more essential than ever.

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Your Spring Garden

These are strange times to find ourselves in, and I hope that you all are staying home as much as you can, and staying as safe as you can be. Crises such as these present opportunities at the same time as they threaten security, and there is definitely no better time to put work into your home garden than the present moment. From food security to psychological well-being, a home garden can offer some bit of stability in these increasingly uncertain times. With that being said, we are gearing up to get started on our spring plant deliveries, and have compiled this planting guide to help you along once you receive your spring starts and seeds.

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Preparing Your Spring Garden

Winter is a nice time to just let your garden go unattended for a bit. Hopefully you tucked your garden in last fall, mulched and/or cover cropped, and planted fall Brassicas and garlic.

Now is the time to start to prepare your beds for your first spring planting. Most of those Brassicas have probably been harvested and eaten, and your garlic is hopefully growing tall and loving this mild winter. Leave that garlic alone…it needs to stay in the ground for another 4 or 5 months.

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Fresh Face Brings Fresh Food to School District

Jeff Coats - GV food services directorJeff Coats and his wife always knew they wanted to return to Nevada County, having lived here some 20 years ago – so much so that they bought a house in Nevada City a few years back.  When Jeff read about a Food Services Director opening in the Grass Valley School District, he applied and is happy to be “home.”

Coats and his team are responsible for providing nutrition to school aged children around the county – breakfast and lunch in Grass Valley schools as well as meals for two preschool and after school programs which consist of dinner and a snack.  The district also contracts with other schools to provide meals–be it snacks, lunches, or both.  Coats said they follow USDA guidelines.  “Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the guidelines for school lunches and school breakfasts are geared to more healthy choices.  We determined our students need whole grains- they are better for them than processed flour – we provide a meat or meat alternative every day.  We are required to serve fresh fruits and vegetables every day, and 8 fluid ounces of milk.  So, every day, what we send out to the students include all of those components.”  The current administration is rolling back some of those guidelines which Coats does not necessarily agree with but expects an increase in what he calls “food acceptability” by the students. 

The district just underwent an audit which Coats expects to pass but also feels there is room for improvement.  “Can we do better? Gosh, we could do so much better!  I believe there is some room to improve the program.  Parents are concerned about a lot of things, for example, all of the packaging and plastic that we put things in and the perception that it (the food) is not fresh and not healthy for the children.” 

Less than six months into the job, Coats is already looking at different ways to effectively meet the guidelines while making improvements to the menus and the process.  At the beginning of February, he   put salad bars back into the Grass Valley elementary and middle schools.  “Reintroducing the salad bars gives us an opportunity to offer more of a variety of fresh vegetables and fresh fruit,” Coats said, “It also allows us to be able to purchase some of the wonderful local stuff that we have and offer that on our salad bar and do some nice marketing for our local farms.”  Jeff is looking to connect with local farms this spring and summer and is committed to making purchases of fresh, local food. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables in a salad bar do not require packaging so Coats expects to cut packaging by 50% with that one small change.  He said more kids eat fruits and vegetables and by giving them a choice, they are more likely to eat what they select, which will cut back on waste while still meeting the guidelines.  “It’s a start,” he said.  “We have some longer terms goals to  retrofit our areas where we serve and put in some steam wells and hot holding wells so that instead of packaging hot food we can serve more family style.”  He says while that may not change the corndog they are serving, (which are very popular with students), it won’t be in a package.   Coats also plans to retrofit the industrial kitchens to do some scratch cooking. 

While Coats has the freedom to serve what he chooses as long as he hits the guidelines and stays within budget, he believes processed food is not the best for growing bodies.  “Access to fresh fruits and vegetables with natural sugars and things like that give your body that natural energy and gets you through the day while processed food fills your belly but bogs you down,” he said.  “I don’t think our students can concentrate and be the best they can be in school having that type of (processed) food all the time.”

Coats hopes to partner with Sierra Harvest for some marketing to get the word out and to better use produce from local farmers and expects to include harvests from the school’s gardens in the salad bar.  Coats concludes, “We are making strides.  I am excited to be here and am excited to make changes for the better of our community.”

Connecting Farmers and Businesses Locally

food bank 2019 delivery from local farms
Delivery of fresh, local produce to the Food Bank of Nevada County 2019

In support of Sierra Harvest’s mission to make locally sourced food accessible to all, Procurement Specialist Lauren Scott, has been working to build relationships between local farmers and local businesses.

Hired by Sierra Harvest in 2017, Scott works primarily with food service directors, chefs and farmers to understand their needs, find common ground, and build relationships.   Scott said, “I am not a distributor or middle-man.  We don’t sit on any produce.  We just try to help connect them and then nurture the relationship for them to continue making those purchases on their own.”  

She explained the reason that is necessary is because most food service directors work with distributors who make it really easy to get whatever they want, whenever they want it, with a single phone call — though that produce may be trucked in from miles away or even brought in from other countries. Scott said, “It’s a bit of a foreign concept to have to call local farmers to find out what they have and wait for their delivery day, but it has been really successful, when we find a match that works for both the producer and the buyer.”

One of those successes is with Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital (SNMH). Scott introduced SNMH Nutrition Services Director, Noel Slaughter to the farmers of Mountain Bounty Farm to find out what produce would be available in what season and what items would fit the hospital budget.  Slaughter then began incorporating those items into her menu planning. 

The relationship worked so well, Slaughter has expanded the local menu to include produce from Indian Springs Organic Farm, Sunset Ridge Fine Fruits and most recently added local free-range meat from Nevada County Free Range Beef. Scott said, “The hospital is serving locally grown, grass fed meat and I don’t think anyone really knows it.  It is a big deal.”

Sierra Harvest’s procurement program has grown significantly over the past year. Once focused exclusively on institutions such as schools and hospital food service, Scott now provides support for Restaurants, Caterers, Grocers, Senior Living Facilities and food pantries such as Interfaith Food Ministries and the Food Bank of Nevada County.

Scott began working with Interfaith Food Ministries in April of 2019 and since then they have purchased nearly 10,000 pounds of organic produce from local and regional farmers including butternut squash from Johansen Ranch and sweet potatoes from Mountain Bounty Farm. 

One of Sierra Harvest’s newest procurement partners is The Food Bank of Nevada County. Executive Director Nicole McNeely said the organization received funding from the California Department of Social Services (Cal Foods) to buy food within California.  She reached out to Sierra Harvest to help her match the needs of the Food Bank with local farms and is grateful for the help she has received.  She said, “It really feels like I have a comrade and we are working on this together.”  

The Food Bank’s December Holiday distribution included carrots, purple and green cabbage from Super Tuber Farm (grown within a few miles of the distribution center), as well as Pearson Family Farm persimmons, Johansen Ranch spaghetti squash and Meyer lemons. 

McNeely has arranged for tastings and education on how to prepare the local produce, so clients expand their food knowledge and options.

In just two months, the Food Bank has spent over $6,000 on 5,400 pounds of local produce.  Scott said, “That is making a meaningful impact on local farmers.” She credits McNeely with “doing a really good job balancing wanting to support local farmers and making sure she is using funds prudently – stretching the Food Bank dollars to get the most for her clientele.” 

Scott added, “While the program doesn’t completely replace regular food distribution, it is a way to support local farmers, and offer customers the freshest produce possible in addition to whatever the businesses are serving. It is about building new habits for the buyers and helps build markets for local farms.”

McNeely said, “It is important to pass on to the families the experience of eating a carrot that is grown right down the road.  It’s important for the clients to be connected to their local food sources and farmers.  From a nutritional perspective, being able to offer food that is grown without pesticides is really a great offering we are able to give.”  She also emphasized the importance of giving the many children they reach an understanding of how food grows and the nutritional value of the food they are eating. 

 “This is food that is grown here.  You can grow this.  You can produce your own food by growing something like this,” McNeely added.  “It’s an education piece.  It’s an economic piece.  It’s a really exciting thing we are glad to be a part of.”

food bank delivery 2019 - johansen ranch

November Garden Chores

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Greetings Gardeners!

How did it get to be mid-November already?  While the middle of the country is blanketed in snow and single digit temperatures, we are still enjoying higher daytime temperatures and it’s shirt weather.  Lucky us!  (Although we can all agree it’s time for the rains, seriously.)  Temperate as it is, we are in the homestretch of autumn now.  The night arrives promptly around 5, and gardens are all but forgotten for the moment.

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Eat Well, Learn Better

Dre Maher at Nevada City School of the Arts new  Food Services DirectorNourish NCSA, the Nevada City School of the Art’s (NCSA) new scratch cooked school meals program kicked off this year with the motto, “Eat well, learn better.”  Dre Maher is the Food Service Coordinator who manages to feed 200 students each day of the school year with fresh, locally grown food.

While Dre was hired at NCSA last April, it took a while to get the kitchen certified and ready for the lunch program which went live this year.  She said, “Everything is from scratch everyday which is pretty unique in the school food service industry.  Every morning I do all of the cooking and then I have an assistant who comes in and helps me pack and wash everything at the end of the day.”

Maher has a lifelong love of making fresh, healthy meals and worked at a food co-op in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  In 2000, she lost a loved one to cancer.  “That had a big impact on me,” Maher said.  “I decided I wanted to be a chef but with a focus on whole food and nutrition.”  That decision took her to the Natural Gourmet Cooking Institute in New York City where she graduated before returning to Albuquerque to start a family. 

There, she started her business as a caterer and as a personal chef teaching people how to shop and cook fresh meals.  Along the way she also became a farmer, learning more about how to grow her own food.  Her husband was hired to run the Briarpatch Food Co-op which brought her to Nevada County. 

Maher was introduced to Sierra Harvest working as a farm to school liaison, which lead her to the role she has today.  She said she was doing tastings of fresh produce items once a month with area students and then started doing tasting days as one of the chefs.  “That was great,” Maher said.  “The kids here have known me for the past seven years as someone who is going to try to get them to try new things.” 

Maher said she has relationships with a dozen local farms.  “Every carrot these kids have ever eaten here is from Super Tuber Farm.  Our food waste goes to feed pigs at Cosmic Roots Ranch where we buy our bacon, so it comes back around.”  She plans a four-week menu cycle and can change ingredients in the dish based on what is available and is at the Farmer’s Market weekly.

Sierra Harvest has built a culture of why it is important to eat fresh and teaches kids fun facts about produce and introducing them to new foods.  As the Nourish NCSA program got underway, Sierra Harvest offered Maher a tremendous amount of support in helping her find great values from local farms and helping her with proper reporting for reimbursements. 

Maher said even the so called “picky eater” will try what she offers.  “Maybe it’s peer pressure or maybe it’s because they have never had it fresh before or never had it prepared a certain way before, but they will taste it a few times and usually like it.”  She said she receives a lot of “thank you’” from students and has received notes from parents saying the lunch may be the most nutritious meal their child will eat all day.

The program also ties nicely with NCSA’s curriculum, including watershed studies and trips to the Yuba River to study the salmon runs.  Maher said, “This is why it matters.  The kids will understand the connection and why we farm this way.   Hopefully, these kids will grow up and value these choices as adults.” 

With a lead-in from Sierra Harvest, Nourish NCSA is making an impact on future generations, 200 kids at a time. 

Get a Headstart with a Garden

sierra college day care center children feed their dinasours fresh greens 2019
Feeding their dinosaurs some fresh greens!

Gardening made so easy, a toddler can do it.  That is a realized goal after the Sierra Gardens Program was introduced to the Child Development Center at Sierra College.  Site Supervisor, Katie Foss said, the state-run pre-school and early Head Start program currently cares for 44 children from ages 18 months to 4 years old in their toddler and pre-school program.  It was a parent of one of those toddlers who told her about the Sierra Harvest Garden Program.  “She said, you should sign up and get beds put in the toddler yard,” Foss explained.  “So I thought that sounded really cool and inquired about it.” 

Foss said the process was simple.  After filling out the initial paperwork, she was contacted by the Sierra Harvest Garden Coordinator, Edy Cassell, to determine the space, cost, and need, and then to schedule a time for the team to come out and build the beds.  “They brought tools and the wood and built the beds in the yard, “Foss said.  “We were inside so the kids could watch from the windows.  Once the soil was delivered, the kids were able to scoop it into the beds.”   Foss said Sierra Harvest supplies organic, locally grown starts and seeds for two years based on the season.  “The team from Sierra Harvest showed the kids how to put the starts in the soil and let the kids take turns planting.  The kids water the plants and the teachers fill in.”  She added the kids love taking on the responsibility of caring for the garden at the school.

She added, “The kids love to use water cans and buckets to keep the soil wet – even some of the toddlers are interested in helping.  We have been able to explain how the garden works and once the vegetables are ready to harvest, we let the kids pick what they want.  They especially love picking the little tomatoes.”

Supplying the children with fresh produce and introducing them to gardening are just a couple of the benefits of the program.  “We used the produce in our cooking projects in the classroom and it lets the kids try new things.”  Foss continued, “When they see that they can come up and choose something to try, even if they don’t like it the first time, they watch their peers.   When a child sees everyone else is eating something, we notice they are more apt to try it themselves.   Sometimes they will feed each other.”

Foss said, “We are very grateful for the Sierra Gardens program.  It gives the children another opportunity to try something new, especially something that is outside and has something to do with plants and nature.  We love that it is something new they are exposed to and can try, and they take pride in it.” 

Some parents have been inspired to plant a little garden at home, even if just in a window.  The Sierra  Gardens Program may have even planted the seed for a farmer of the future. 

Apply for a garden and get more information about the Sierra Garden program.

Sheet mulching for the win!

Amanda here reporting from our second glorious rainy day of this fall.  I hope you were able to get a good harvest in before the rains- as I type this my house is filled with the sweet smell of roasting tomatoes which will become a bright sauce for the winter.  (In case you’re wondering, I’m going to freeze it- not can it).

As the seasons turn yet again, I have to say that fall is my favorite.  There’s something about the light changing and the shifting that makes me go into squirrel mode.  I’ve been drying pears, making pickles and harvesting herbs and it’s so satisfying!  And, of course, I’ve been thinking about next season, too.

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Hospitality House, Sierra Harvest team up to nourish, educate homeless residents

hospitality house partnership 2019Hospitality House and Sierra Harvest have partnered to grow their programs together with a goal to increase self-sufficiency and skills for low-income and homeless individuals through nutrition-related endeavors, a news release states.

Sierra Harvest’s mission is to educate, inspire, and connect Nevada County families to fresh, local, seasonal food, and now it will be directly helping homeless individuals at Utah’s Place, the shelter operated by Hospitality House.

As part of the partnership, the release states, Sierra Harvest will help Hospitality House expand its current garden to four seasons to ensure year-round sustainability and availability of fresh, organic produce to guests. They will provide quarterly site visits/workshops for planting with guests in conjunction with each new garden season, lead specialized training courses for Hospitality House’s culinary students, and build gardens at newly housed guests’ homes to reduce their costs of living through the Sierra Gardens program.

Sierra Harvest connected a master gardener, Toni Smith, to give weekly support for the shelter garden as well.

“Thrilled to be working in tandem with Hospitality House to solve some of our most pressing community issues regarding homelessness and hunger,” Aimee Retzler, co-director of Sierra Harvest said in the release. “We are joining forces to leverage Sierra Harvest’s passion to enable fresh food access for everyone and Hospitality House’s ability to provide a space and compassion for our homeless community.

“Working together we give Hospitality House clients opportunities to gain knowledge, skills, self-worth and access to fresh, local, organic food. Our combined efforts will deliver hope, healing and health to those most in need.”

According to the release, Hospitality House works to bring homeless people in Nevada County into a circle of community caring that offers shelter, sustenance, medical care, advocacy, opportunity, dignity, and hope as they assist them in transitioning from homelessness to housing. To aid this transition, Hospitality House encourages its guests to embrace educational opportunities, volunteerism and job-training programs. The shelter currently offers its guests a 12-week culinary job training program and a 6-week retail job training program and will now incorporate Sierra Harvest into its curriculum as an instrumental volunteer and job training program, available and encouraged to every guest at the shelter.

“Food deserts are a serious issue,” said Nancy Baglietto, executive director of Hospitality House. “When low income and homeless individuals have limited access to affordable, nutritious food, their health and livelihood suffers. Because of Sierra Harvest, guests will have an opportunity to develop a better understanding of gardening and the nutritional value associated with produce, in addition to learning best methods for farm-to-table cooking.”

Guests of Utah’s Place will volunteer at Sierra Harvest’s Food Love Farm to learn gardening and farming techniques and give back to their community; guests will learn hands-on carpentry skills by building garden beds for low-income Nevada County residents, including garden beds for former homeless guests of Utah’s Place.

Hospitality House will enroll in the Harvest of the Month program offered through the generosity of BriarPatch Food Co-op to expand culinary students’ education by learning about new farm fresh produce and how to incorporate it into new recipes to learn and master.

Select graduates of the culinary program will even participate in Sierra Harvest’s “Tasting Days” in which a culinary student will give short cooking lessons/demos to kids interested in cooking.