Each Monday the orders begin flowing in for Susie Sutphin and her team at Tahoe Food Hub.
By 1 p.m. the following day — when the food hub’s online market closes — the team will be looking at filling roughly 120 orders of produce that will head to local students, families in need, those impacted by COVID-19, and many others who simply enjoy the nonprofit’s ability to source local, sustainably grown food.
For nearly a decade, Tahoe Food Hub has steadily grown in the North Tahoe area, seeking to connect the community to food grown within 150 miles, while also helping those facing food insecurity.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the company has seen a surge in demand and its business model shift from primarily selling to restaurants, caterers, and small grocers to individuals in the community purchasing fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and eggs through its Harvest to Order boxes.
During the first few weeks of the pandemic, Sutphin — founder and director of the food hub — said the food hub struggled to keep up as orders through its online market climbed to record levels.
“We weren’t set up for that. It wasn’t scaled growth at all, but I like to think we pivoted really quickly,” said Sutphin.
In the following weeks, the food hub’s Harvest to Order program would grow from around five to 10 boxes per week up to 40, then 100. By about a month into the outbreak, the food hub was bringing food from the outlying areas to create roughly 200 boxes per week.
”I think people came to us out of necessity and they stayed with us because of the quality and the story,” said Sutphin.
As boxes and donations continued to come in, Sutphin found ways to give back to those in need, creating several avenues to donate food and raise funds.
“They had to shut their store,” said Kristin York, vice president of businesses innovation for the Sierra Business Council, on the food hub’s physical location being closed during the outbreak. “Yet so many people are ordering online and ordering their box, and they’re donating to others. Susie has a brilliant model to give back.”
‘I still get chills from it’
Tahoe Food Hub began nearly a decade ago as a way to address local food access challenges, focusing on a mission to support regenerative farming practices.
To create food boxes and a marketplace, Sutphin and her team sought out farms within roughly a 150-mile distance of North Tahoe. The team then receives orders on Monday and Tuesday,
The food hub would later partner with other local nonprofits like Project MANA, which later became part of the Sierra Community House, to donate food to those in need within the community.
Then in 2019 the food hub launched its Giving Box program as a way to allow individuals to donate to families facing food insecurity. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the food hub was seeing an average of two to three boxes donated per week.
A month into the pandemic, Sutphin said the number of donations to the Giving Box program had jumped to 70 — a figure she thought had to be a mistake. And so, the team at the food hub sought about reaching out to each of the donors, verifying that each order was indeed accurate.
“I still get chills from it,” said Sutphin. “Every week the donations to our harvest order program just keep coming in. It’s so amazing to see the outpouring of support from out community.”
Sutphin added that the food hub also saw a massive increase in donations, allowing her to team up with local restaurants and donate hundreds of boxes of fruits and vegetables to out of work chefs, waiters, and others in the industry affected by losing work during the pandemic.
As donations continued to pour in from the community, the food hub teamed up with Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, and since July has donated roughly 70 boxes per week to local families.
“Susie Sutphin continues to be a fearless and visionary leader for school meal programs since 2012. She has selflessly set up fundraising programs so that our school meal program can purchase organic, locally grown produce at a sustainable price that supports a livable wage for local farmer,” said Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Food Services Director Kat Soltanmorad. “With her direction, she developed nutrition education programs such as the ’Farm to Cart,’ classroom program to teach children where produce is grown and the business side of running a farm or farm stand … Since May 2020, Tahoe Food hub has donated over 2,500 boxes! I am grateful for Susie and her passion to support a healthy food system that benefits everyone in our Tahoe communities!”
Sutphin said the food hub is currently handing out 120 food boxes per week. Of those, 60 boxes are going to the school district, and 20 are sent to Jake’s on the Lake, which is facilitating distribution to those in need around Tahoe City.
“The Tahoe Food Hub’s Giving Box program has helped so many restaurant employees in our region who have been struggling with lay-offs and a lack of work since last spring,” said Jake’s on the Lake Marketing Manager Jenny Goldsmith. “Receiving a box of organic, local produce each week may seem small to some, but it’s really made a difference for a lot of families and individuals in need, and the boxes themselves are generously filled with fresh fruits and vegetables – they really do go a long way and help to significantly reduce grocery bills without having to sacrifice healthy foods.”
For those facing food insecurity, Giving Boxes can be applied for by completing a short survey through the food hub’s website at http://www.tahoefoodhub.org. Among the questions on the survey is whether the individual has faced food insecurity before COVID-19.
“They all say ’no,’” said Sutphin on those applying to receive boxes. “We’re helping people who are facing food insecurity for the first time. It’s a scary proposition to realize that you’re in this position for the first time.”
Giving Boxes can be donated for $20, which provides a local family a free box of farm fresh produce. As of Thursday, the program had raised $14,775 of an $18,000 goal.
For more information or to donate, visit http://www.tahoefoodhub.org.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2643.