The University of Nevada-Reno’s Desert Farming Initiative sponsors a farm-to-food pantry program which helps students eat more healthy food.
Photo courtesy of DFI

by Enrico Villamaino

The University of Nevada-Reno’s (UNR) College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR) established its Desert Farming Initiative (DFI) in 2013. The mission of the DFI is to engage in education, research and outreach to advance and strengthen sustainable agriculture and food systems in Nevada. The DFI’s research can then be shared and utilized in other desert climates.

Charles Schembre has served as the DFI’s program director for the past two years. “Food insecurity is a big concern,” he said, “especially in student populations. Many of these young people are away from home for the first time, and without a great deal of money. The DFI’s farm-to-food pantry and our university-only CSA programs are meant to help with that.”

According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU,) 60% of undergraduate students have experienced food insecurity during their course of study. Food insecurity has been documented to cause psychological and academic effects on college students, including poor physical and mental health and a decrease in academic completion rates. UNR has a student enrollment of over 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

“The trouble with so many food pantries is that they’re full of the leftover stuff. People tend to glean their own personal stock of food, and the stuff they donate doesn’t allow those using the pantry to eat as healthily as they should,” Schembre said. “We want to teach our consumers to eat fresh produce, not just stuff from a can.” The DFI makes donations of fresh produce, grown on its own farm, to food pantries serving local populations. The institute’s goal is to be a reliable and consistent source of fresh food to better foster overall health in the community.

The DFI partners with Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada (CCNN) to grow and supply fresh produce to the St. Vincent’s Food Pantry in Reno. The DFI distributes vegetables to the food pantry when there is excess on the farm, and hopes to dedicate specific acreage to pantry food production in the future.

The DFI hosts its CSA program, named the “Farm Share Box Program,” from July 1 through Nov. 11. The 20-week program is divided into two 10-week subscription periods, with individual and family size boxes. Prices range from $180 for an individual 10-week subscription to $260 for the family box. The program is open to UNR faculty, staff and students only.

Each Farm Share Box includes a variety of produce (such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, carrots, beets, radishes, basil, zucchini, squash, melons, winter squash, parsnips, lettuce, kale, chard, collards, herbs, etc.). All produce is certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF.)

As an additional part of the program, produce is donated to the Pack Provisions program. The program provides access to perishable and non-perishable foods, school supplies, hygiene items and more. Supplies are delivered by UNR’s Campus Escort Department to anyone living within a three-mile radius of the campus.

In a final effort to serve the community, from June through September, the DFI spends every Tuesday selling fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market at the United Methodist Church in nearby Sparks.

“We always have a lot going on at the farm, so it’s nice to share it with the community. Now, more than ever, it’s important that people have the access to everything that can keep them healthy,” Schembre said.

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