How do you expand access in the Eastern Sierra to locally grown produce? Representatives and residents of Inyo and Mono Counties gathered on Tuesday, Jan. 20 to brainstorm an answer in the first meeting of the Eastern Sierra Food Network this year.
The network is the result of an Inyo Mono Advocates for Community Action (IMACA) grant intended to gather data on local food production and distribution “to figure out what we can change or improve our local food system,” explained IMACA Community Food Planning Coordinator Erin Hamilton. Hamilton added that one of the intents of the grant is to address the need for affordable local produce options in schools and low-income communities.
Participants at the workshop began by acknowledging the many challenges facing Eastern Sierra farmers, distributors, and buyers.
Since the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began diverting water from Inyo and Mono Counties, farming in both areas has been a tricky proposition. LADWP ownership of land and water rights limits the land available for farming, as well as the water needed to keep crops growing or cattle grazing.
And if farmers aren’t already struggling with smaller parcels and water allocations than they might find in the Central Valley, for instance, they’re struggling with a now four-year drought.
There are still more complications, such as the fact that local ranchers can’t slaughter their cows locally, if they intend to sell the meat, because of liability issues. Instead, cows are slaughtered in Fallon, Nevada, then brought back to Inyo and Mono Counties for sale.
The end result of these challenges? As Stellar Brew owner Andrea Walker said of the farmers who provide her CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) Sierra Bounty with produce, “Three out of five make a living. One does half the year; for the other, it’s a hobby.”
That said, the Eastern Sierra still offers a surprising variety of local produce to its residents.
CSAs, which deliver produce to a network of individuals for a set weekly or seasonal price, include Sierra Bounty, Greens ‘N Things (Banner Springs Ranch), as well as CSAs provided by Dennis Oakeshott and Simis Ranch.
Abundant Harvest, which began distributing in Bishop and Mammoth this winter, is not actually a CSA, but provides organic produce boxes from the Central Valley.
Farmers markets range from Mammoth to Lone Pine (the Lone Pine Farmers Market continues to operate even in winter), and local groceries Mono Market in Lee Vining, Sierra Sundance in Mammoth, and Manor Market in Bishop all sell local produce.
And while the cost of local produce is higher than produce bought through multi-billion dollar national food distributor Sysco, in Mammoth alone, Campo, Lakefront, Bleu, Petra’s, and Stellar Brew all use local produce provided by Sierra Bounty.
“They’re happy to pay the prices because they do want to support the system,” Walker said.
But workshop participants noted the importance of also providing fresh, local produce to low-income communities and children. Sandra Pearce, a Public Health Nurse with the Mono County Health Department, said the Department’s goal “is to make organic, local produce more affordable for some low-income families.”
April Eagan of Inyo County Health and Human Services, and a representative for Team Inyo for Healthy Kids, echoed that sentiment. “We’re working to reduce obesity and improve healthy food access,” she said.
Mono County First 5 Executive Director, Molly DesBaillets, and Toiyabe Preventative Medicine Department representative, Matt Larsen, emphasized their organizations’ focus on nutritional education, given the earlier and later in life risks of developing health issues such as diabetes.
Lee Vining School and Community Garden Coordinator, Ilene Mandelbaum, proposed some ways to make local produce more affordable to those most in need, such as accepting Food Stamps at farmers markets. Turns out that as part of the 2014 Farm Bill, those who qualify for Food Stamps can use their coupons to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at certified farmers markets.
Mandelbaum also said there is a USDA competitive grants program, “double bucks,” in which Food Stamp recipients get twice as many fruits and vegetables when they shop at farmers markets.
School garden programs can also receive USDA funding to support nutrition education programs and the sourcing of fresh fruit and vegetables for school meals, she said.
And under the Affordable Care Act, the IRS recently ruled that private hospitals can claim tax exemptions for actions they take that “benefit the health needs of communities,” including programs that reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and groceries.
“So as we develop our farmers markets, there’s a way to provide for low-income and support farmers on a scale we haven’t been able to,” Mandelbaum said.
Workshop participants agreed that these and other grant programs were worth investigating. “We could fund the scaling up of the distribution of existing CSAs, or think even bigger, creating a farming training program in the Eastern Sierra,” Mandelbaum concluded.
Meanwhile Walker wondered whether Inyo and Mono Counties could invest in greenhouses to meet the demand for winter produce. “I think Abundant Harvest is opening up more opportunities for organics in wintertime, but it would be great for us to grow year-round produce,” she said. “To me, creating a sustainable food system is really important.”
As for next steps? IMACA Director, Charlie Groton, explained that while the first phase of the IMACA grant was coming to a close, a potential second phase could fund further research and coalition development. Attendees agreed to continue meeting each month without grant funding to further expand their network, and to generate new possibilities for improving the Eastern Sierra food system.