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After pandemic woes, Walker River Paiute Tribe builds food security, looks to food sovereignty

Three women are loading food into boxes inside an office building. They are surrounded by boxes of food.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Jennifer Metcalf (from left), Nema Sides and Adell Lacey are the first faces people see when they come to pick up food from the pantry in Schurz, Nev., on Nov. 22, 2022. They loaded groceries into boxes intended for large families.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has begun building a self-sufficient food sovereignty program in Schurz – it’s been a long process in the making.

Semi-trucks packed with food and household goods roared past the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s food and agriculture center. Every day, a steady stream of trucks drive down the main road that passes through town, but none of them ever stop there.

At the food center, a line of cars wrapped around the building, waiting for Adell Lacey or Nema Sides to load up a bag or a box of groceries.

They’re the face of the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s food pantry program – a combination of health and agriculture resources all working together to create better food access for the community. That’s their north star.

The tribe’s agriculture assistant Jennifer Metcalf works alongside Sides and Lacey. She said they provide groceries for about 80 families every week. Some come from as far as Reno. Metcalf said those coming from Reno are likely passing through town to visit family, where they learned about this program after it started during the pandemic. Now, it’s become a resource.

“With prices going up constantly, it’s nice for people willing to reach out,” said Metcalf.

Jennifer Metcalf sits in front of a laptop. There is a table behind her with stacks of boxes filled with produce. Metcalf is next to a glass wall that’s reflecting someone walking through the door.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Jennifer Metcalf tabulated the number of people who have come by to pick up groceries from the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s food pantry program in Schurz, Nev., on Nov. 22, 2022. Adell Lacey and Nema Sides loaded groceries and called out who’s stopped by.

Together Sides, Lacey, and Metcalf work out of what used to be the old computer education building in Schurz, Nevada. Now, instead of computer monitors, the building is filled with sacks of onions, potatoes, canned goods, and frozen meats on one side, and household items on the other.

They aren’t just the first faces people see when they come to pick up groceries. They are also drivers, agriculture workers, and statisticians. Every Tuesday, they drive 50 miles roundtrip between Yerington and Schurz to meet a semi-truck from the food bank of northern Nevada. They load produce and processed goods into a shipping truck the size of a Uhaul. It takes about an hour to load everything.

If there’s time they stop for breakfast, they usually order the special, and head back to Schurz. Sides said they have a lot on their plate.

“We got so much going on, like Monday, we’re busy. Tuesday, we’re busy from 6:45 a.m. to 4 pm,” Sides said.

Nema Sides is grabbing bunches of bananas from a cardboard box in front of her. Adell Lacey is behind her and out of focus.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Nema Sides goes from driving the truck to giving out groceries and everything in between. She’s also training to become a beekeeper alongside Adell Lacey. She loaded groceries to be distributed at the tribe’s food bank in Schurz, Nev., on Nov. 22, 2022.

The USDA says this rural community is considered low access, or what is commonly known as a food desert. Like others, when the pandemic hit, it was a struggle to find food at the grocery store.

Lacey said it was frustrating finding empty shelves, so when an informal network began among tribal members who’d pick up needed items for others; it was a lifeline.

“We didn’t go out. My husband had heart failure at the time he was just recovering from it,” Lacey said. “We weren’t going to the store, really, so it was a real blessing.”

The Human Resources manager for the tribe Bill Frank played a role in shaping the concept of a community store into something more concrete.

“The whole community was doing that,” Frank said. “That’s when we were like, ‘Hey, wonder if we can do, like, start a community store.’ And so we went to Amber [Torres], our chairman, and she's like, ‘Sure.’ And so then we started just making contacts.”

Even before the pandemic, food sovereignty had already taken root through the planting and harvesting of fruit trees and a hoop house, similar to a greenhouse, for the community. They also worked with a local butcher for a short time. Then came the partnership with the Food Bank of Northern Nevada – turning that community store concept into a food pantry and bringing groceries closer to their neighbors.

Adell Lacey is loading boxes on a cart. She’s visible through a doorway. The room in the forefront is filled with tote bags filled with produce.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Adell Lacey leads the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s food pantry program. She worked in tandem with Nema Sides and Jennifer Metcalf to ensure every piece of produce is used and nothing is wasted in Schurz, Nev., on Nov. 22, 2022.

Frank said documenting results, leveraging relationships, applying for agriculture and healthcare grants, and keeping their eyes open for opportunities all played a role in their success. They even received seeds from the Foodbank, which they’ll provide to residents so they can grow their own veggies. But Frank said that’s just the beginning.

“We’re going to have teaching classrooms. We’re going to do potting classes. We’re going to show you how to plant certain foods,” he said.

The agriculture department’s food program will play a key role in this effort. Workers from the program would help with soil health, weeding, and harvesting. The plan would be to gather the extra produce and distribute it through the food program. Darcy Emm is the outgoing director of the agriculture department.

“I kind of think of it as this full circle type of program,” Emm said. “Like, you come, and you take care of the ground, and the ground in itself will help you grow this nutritious food. And then you give that back to the people. And then in turn, the people can come back and take care of the ground.”

A photo taken from above of boxes filled with grapes, bananas and oranges. The Walker River Paiute Tribe seal, which is shaped like a fish jumping out of the water, is made of colored tiles on the ground.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Fruit, vegetables and produce are packed into bigger boxes for large families at the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s food pantry program in Schurz, Nev., on Nov. 22, 2022.

Emm has been involved with the agriculture program since before the pandemic. First, as a student working on the food sovereignty program and now as the director. She has big hopes for the future. She’d like to see livestock introduced, such as pheasant, quail, and even rabbits for the community to process, mostly for food.

“I know in today’s world it’s kind of controversial, but it’s something that the native people have always done. So, it’s no big deal to us, and there is a market for it,” Emm said.

There’s still work to be done, but like everyone else, Emm is excited for the future – one that can provide resources for the community, and then some.

This is something that Lacey is also excited about. During her time at the Boys and Girls Club, she’d harvest carrots with the kids.

“Just pulling that carrot out of the ground and tasting it for the first time was an eye-opening experience. For them, and for me,” Lacey said. “My mom always taught us that if you don’t learn it, you don’t know it, and you need to know where your food comes from.”

Lacey said showing younger generations that a relationship with the land is important. She believes when people have food security, and know where their food comes from, both in a historical and physical sense, there’s strength in that.

The exterior of a green and white building. There’s a sign that reads, “Headquarters. Tribal Food Sovereignty Project.” There are trees with fallen leaves and a blue sky with scattered clouds behind it.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
The Tribal Food Sovereignty Project sits a few meters away from a field of fruit trees and a hoop house in Schurz, Nev., on Nov. 22, 2022. A new building is being made to help further the project’s efforts and food pantry.

Follow Gustavo Sagrero on social media. @gus.chavo on Instagram, and @sagreroalvarez on Twitter.

Gustavo Sagrero is a former bilingual reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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