Food service industry, grocery stores adopt local solutions to sustain operations, nourish Truckee
Since the stay-at-home executive order was first decreed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, grocery stores have reported record sales due to panic-induced purchases.
Employees at Walmart and meat processing plants have died of COVID-19, but people need to eat.
Essential grocery workers in Truckee are employed at places like Safeway, Save Mart, Mi Pueblito Market, Tahoe Food Hub and New Moon.
Safeway and Savemart have specific early hours for seniors and are compliant with the local health regulations, according to corporate officials. Their workers were not permitted to speak directly to reporters.
Store manager Elda Nuñez said Nevada County’s Environmental Health Department is working closely with Mi Pueblito Market and its five employees to help the store adopt the newest safety measures and prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
“At this point in time, our first concern is our employees’ safety,” she said.
Nuñez said the Public Health Director Jill Blake has been integral in addressing operating concerns. Employees socially distance at the recommended 6 feet, follow handwashing guidelines, wear gloves and sanitize between customers, Nuñez said. Masks are still optional in groceries, but the market recently installed plexiglass barriers at their registers.
Nuñez said her team marked the floor every 6 feet in the 2,200 square-foot store building to help customers keep their social distance. Another measure taken to prevent the virus’ spread limits the number of people in-store to 10 and locks the door between batches of shoppers to prevent crowding.
“Once they’re done we let more people in,” Nuñez said. “The 6-feet distancing is something we’ve had to educate our customers on.”
Nuñez said her employees’ pulse on COVID-19 health and safety protocol make them a legitimate and valuable community resource for updates in public health protocols. In some ways, Nuñez said her employees are in an ideal position to support and inform customers in an unprecedented time.
“A lot of people don’t really know what’s going on. When this all started we had a lot of customers looking to us to provide information,” Nuñez said. “We try to stay updated with the information so we can have people feel at ease while they’re shopping at our store.”
“We have such a small store, such a small crew, that we do get to know our customers,” she said. “I know that we’ve been able to create a level of trust at the store with our regulars. People ask why there’s such a difference in our protocol and we’ve been taking the time to explain what we’re doing.”
Nuñez said the market reduced store hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily to establish a balance between its obligations to protect and provide for the Truckee community.
“We haven’t had to lay anyone off but we have lost a lot of revenue with the hour shortage,” she said.
The market, which Nuñez describes as “a hidden gem,” applied for the federal government’s small business loan but has not heard back. If accepted, the store could continue to provide locals with groceries: including fresh produce, rice, beans, flour, garlic, milk, meat; toilet paper and day-specific Mexican take-out, as well as check cashing and money transferring services.
“Probably 70% of our customers are Hispanic,” she said. And many customers come to cash their checks or send money abroad, Nuñez said.
“We’ve definitely seen a decline in check cashing and money wires, even in the amounts. What people were sending a month ago versus what they’re sending today is very different,” she said.
Nuñez said customers demonstrated conservative spending habits since the mid-March shutdown began.
“They’re limiting more of what they’re buying because of a smaller income,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez said the market is in search of a butcher in anticipation of a busy summer.
“Usually during the summer we get busier,” Nuñez said “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
‘NEARLY QUADRUPLED SALES’
Food vendors learning new practices may also act as educators during the pandemic, as they are meanwhile charged with meeting high demands in a high-stress, high-risk environment.
“It’s been a huge learning curve. We’ve nearly quadrupled our retail sales,” Tahoe Food Hub’s Program Manager Marissa Yakaitis said.
Tahoe Food Hub primarily has connected local restaurants to local farmers with sustainable growing practices up until mid-March, selling fresh produce wholesale.
“We’ve been able to pivot and shift our market, 80% wholesale – 20% retail and flipped that this week,” Yakaitis said.
Yakaitis said Tahoe Food Hub launched its online Farmers’ Market in August 2019 as a relatively small part of the company’s overall mission to create and support sustainable food systems — at the time.
Because of the coronavirus crisis, the Hub’s Farm Shop is closed.
“We already had the online infrastructure in place, we figured it would be safest to transfer to all online sales,” Yakaitis said.
The online farmers’ market sells Harvest Boxes, once made-to-order now streamlined, riff of a typical CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Box. Unlike CSA boxes, Tahoe Food Hub’s Harvest Boxes are available year-round — although the produce changes — and customers can pay as they go, rather than committing at the beginning of a season.
Yakaitis said Tahoe Food Hub began March with 30-40 orders of their Harvest Box, a CSA-style (Community Supported Agriculture) pre-made box of seasonal produce, available for $20 or $30 depending on size ordered.
“This week we did 450 boxes,” Yakaitis said.
Of those boxes, 143 were donation boxes that went to out-of-work restaurant workers, she said.
“We’ve been working with our existing network of chefs to get names of employees who’ve been laid off, anonymous donors and just regular customers to distribute,” Yakaitis said. “We call them ‘Giving Boxes.’”
Yakaitis said Alison and Desmond Elder of the Elder Group Tahoe Real Estate offered a 100% match up to $3,000 to provide comped boxes for their vulnerable Truckee community.
“The community’s support has been unbelievable,” Yakaitis said.
Tahoe Food Hub gets to see its growing mass of customers every Monday and Tuesday at the Truckee airport, the local drop-off point for the Harvest Boxes.
There, the staff dons masks and gloves, wipes down surfaces between customers and has marked the parking lot to inform customers’ social distancing.
“It is a scary time we’re all living in but the vibe at the pickup is fun,” Yakaitis said. “It’s a community gathering the safest way it can possibly be right now, and I find that heartwarming.”
Yakaitis said since Tahoe Food Hub’s rapid growth, her team has split up pick-up times to reduce crowding. The Food Hub also provides contactless drops for immunocompromised people away from the line.
Tahoe Food Hub is a 501c3 organization that sources food from small diversified farms within 150 miles of Truckee. Yakaitis said Suzie Sutphin, her boss and founder of Tahoe Food Hub, traveled around the country for a year to learn what it takes to create a local food system to create an agricultural program and support farms committed to regenerative soil practices.
“Regenerative agriculture can be one of the most mitigating parts of climate change,” Yakaitis said.
Tahoe Food Hub has proved itself resilient and sustainable, that’s why Yakaitis said she is not worried about losing customers at the end of the stay-in-place order or when other CSAs start up later this summer.
“It’s always been our mission to bring fresh food to locals. Now, on top of the food system, we’re building community strength and a general bond,” Yakaitis said. “It’s humbling. It’s so humbling.”
‘EVERY DAY SOMETHING NEW’
The front end manager at Truckee’s New Moon Natural Foods, Carly Moore used “overwhelming” to describe what it’s like to live and work in the time of COVID-19.
“Fortunately it’s new for everyone so at least we’re all kind of learning together,” Moore said. “Every day something new.”
Moore said New Moon’s latest protocol ended the availability of open bulk, which would now be prepackaged.
“Consistently as we learn what other stores are doing we’re just trying to keep up,” Moore said.
Moore, a Squaw Valley local, said the change of pace in the store was palpable.
“March 13 was the craziest day New Moon has had in the 24 years of its existence, we doubled our records. March 15 was the first day we started limiting customers,” Moore said. “Following 10 days were total mayhem — people buying things up like crazy and the whole energy shift.”
Since, the surge in sales has significantly calmed down. Moore said she is unsure if the store has fewer customers because it has not been crowded since they began to meter customer entry. New Moon allows 15 people in the store at once and is open 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. to seniors, and 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. to the general public Monday through Saturday, and is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
“It feels a lot more steady and mellow because not everyone is not in the store at once,” Moore said. “People are finally chilling out.”
Despite anxiety-ridden public places and grocery stores’ heavy obligations to their community, Moore said she feels safe and comfortable because of New Moon’s small staff size and the store’s owner, Billy Griffin’s proactive approach to adopting safety measures.
“I feel far safer than I would working anywhere else, especially any other grocery store,” Moore said.
For her, working on the frontlines during quarantine offers a sense of daily normalcy.
“I think for the most part the staff has kept such a good morale that it feels relatively normal looking past all the very visible sanitation measures that we’ve taken,” Moore said. “It’s probably not the same for other essential workers. Here I think that everyone has had such an awesome positive attitude, and the community has, which is helping with the whole pandemic sitch. I think we’re pretty lucky to say that.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact her at email@example.com.
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Through the final week of August and into September, Nevada County saw a surge of 488 confirmed COVID-19 cases, marking the highest number since early in the pandemic.