Tahoe Food Hub sees big growth as restaurants seek sustainable sources
July 23, 2015
GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Building a regional, sustainable and equitable food system is hard work — and no one knows that better than Susie Sutphin.
Catching up with Sutphin, executive director of the Tahoe Food Hub, on a weekend is tricky. She juggles. She wears many hats. She talks fast.
"Sundays are one of my busiest days," she said at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 12, between ordering food for a big event, making deposits and paying bills. "We are in a big growth spurt. We're trying to play our cards right so we're sustainable.
"I don't want to put the brakes on, but I also need to know how much we can handle."
Tahoe Food Hub is a nonprofit organization that works to restore local food distribution by building a regional food system for North Lake Tahoe.
It is increasing access to nutritious, ecologically grown food by creating a network of farms within 100 miles of North Lake Tahoe and connecting them to restaurants, small grocers, schools and hospitals.
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As many as 17 farms from Nevada County supply food for the project, along with 25 farms in the surrounding foothill and valley farming communities of Auburn, Newcastle and Penryn.
Some local Nevada County farms include: Super Tuber Farm, Riverhill Farm, Sweet Roots Farm, Early Bird Farm, Dinner Bell Farm and First Rain Farm.
"Susie has been awesome to work with. She helps us by giving our samples to restaurants, and advocating on our behalf. I can't talk enough about how she is a great support for us," said Drew Speroni of Early Bird Farm, who supplies vegetables and grains to the hub twice a week. This is his first season farming.
Speroni compares the food hub to a wholesaler like BriarPatch Co-op.
While the price he gets is lower than selling direct to consumers at farmers markets, the upside is the potential for many more sales. He supports the idea of a food hub in Nevada County.
Demand for the project is growing. Chefs are ordering more and more. A small staff of roughly four from the Tahoe Food Hub is managing to keep up.
"The community loves what we are doing to create access and I believe the farming community is loving the additional outlet to sell their products," Sutphin said.
The food hub model is taking hold across the country with approximately 300 regional food hubs in all shapes and sizes from nonprofits to for-profit operations dotting the locavore's landscape.
A "foodshed" — similar to a watershed — represents where a community gets its food. For nonfood producing regions like Lake Tahoe, a foodshed creates partnerships with food abundant neighbors — like western Nevada County — where food is grown year-round.
"These are all farmers that are growing using good sustainable practices," Sutphin said
The Tahoe Food Hub wants to help small farms and ranches go beyond the traditional distribution models. With the Tahoe Food Hub as the distributor, small family farmers are paid a fair price for their products, bringing equity back into the system.
"It's really where the food system is broken, is in the middle," said Sutphin.
Buying food online
A big part of the hub's mission is to tell the stories of the farmers, to build the relationship between the eater who wants to form a connection with the origin of dinner and the grower who put it there.
Chefs are learning the value of telling the farmers' story, too. When restaurants promote local food on the menu, the item becomes a number one seller, said Sutphin.
"When they do tell the story, (chefs notice) 'wow, this plate sold out.' It's a really good indicator that people want that," she said.
Tahoe Food Hub delivers one day a week in the winter and two days a week in the summer months. An online ordering system makes it easy for restaurants to buy in bulk.
"They shop just like they would on Amazon," Sutphin said, clicking on one case, two cases then ending the purchase at the shopping cart.
The website aggregates all the orders and sends them off to the farmers. Some farmers are even planning their crop plantings to meet the growing demand from the food hub.
On a big order day, Tahoe Food Hub drivers meet farmers in Grass Valley at the local food bank then head to Penryn to pick up food held at a cold storage unit. From there, they deliver fresh farm grown food to 22 locations across North Lake Tahoe — from Truckee and Tahoe City, all the way north to Incline Village.
'We all eat food'
Buyers include: Jake's on the Lake, Fireside Pizza Company, Plump Jack, Sunnyside, New Moon Natural Foods, Coffeebar, Cottonwood, Full Belly Deli, Petra, Earthly Delights, Hyatt Regency, North Star, Squaw Valley and more.
A farm shop with food from 25 farms under one roof is open during the week and a "build your own box" program — a CSA for business employees to share — are other ways the Tahoe Food Hub provides access to local food.
With so much emphasis on sustainability, Sutphin continues to brainstorm on ways to make her organization pencil out at the end of the day.
While grants have helped purchase things like a four-wheel-drive distribution truck and paid for staff, they do not supply a reliable revenue stream for the long term.
Instead, she is going beyond annual appeals and fundraisers and putting her focus on the people she serves through a new membership program with a catchy theme for folks who believe in supporting basic ideas like a local food economy and food security — the "hubster."
"The only way this is going to be self-sustainable is if the community supports it … At the end of the day, we all eat food."
Laura Petersen is a freelance writer and contributor to the Sierra Sun's sister paper, The Union, which covers the Sierra Foothills communities of Grass Valley, Nevada City and more. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.