Editor’s Note: This article is a part of a larger story about how the Walker River Paiute Tribe of Nevada responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. The tribe saw the outbreak as both an existential threat and an opportunity to use an unprecedented amount of relief federal funding to develop programs addressing the community’s health, culture, and infrastructure. The whole story will be told in an episode of Everywhere: Extra, a production of the Rural Assembly in collaboration with The Daily Yonder.
The pandemic seemed far away and then, suddenly, it was there, at home, on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Schurz, Nevada. Just like that, a distant threat became a here-and-now reality to a community of around 900.
“There was a lot of fear as to: ‘What we’re doing?’ ‘How are we going to face it?’ ‘How are we going to do it together?’ and ‘How are we going to keep our people safe?’ ” recalled Walker River Paiute Chairman Amber Torres.
But face it they did. After all was said and done, the tribe created the largest food pantry (by the volume of food given out) in the state of Nevada.
William Frank, human resources manager at the tribe, said that around April of 2022 the program had served over 355 individual households, with 6,500 bags of food distributed.
The food pantry feeds tribal members and outsiders alike. Nobody is turned away and the neighboring communities of Yerrington, Fallon, and Hawthorn leaned on the tribe in their time of need as well.
But creating the largest food pantry in the state wasn’t easy or straightforward.
All Hands on Deck
Initially, the tribe decided it had to shut down to protect its own. The lockdown was so strict that even the tribal members living outside of the reservation couldn’t enter the area for a time.
“When we initially did close down, we closed everything down. All of our buildings closed, and then all the recreation closed,” said Frank. “We did take hits on that, but we had to protect our community. That was our ultimate goal, protecting our community and protecting our elders, protecting our tradition, our culture.”
Schurz sits in the high desert about 50 miles east of Lake Tahoe. It’s a stunning landscape of a desert expanse and imposing mountains, raw and powerful. And as much as it is beautiful, it is a sea of what feels like infinite space, in an imperfect way insulating the tribe from the outside world and its troubles and creating challenges of its own.
With few resources and a few staff, for the tribe, it was all hands on deck. To keep everybody safe and the tribe’s services going, staff had to assume more roles and wear many different hats.
“Like me as HR, you were no longer HR, you were whatever it needed to be that day, that hour, that minute,” Frank recalled. “We were very minimal, so yeah, we really relied on our own tribal staff to make things happen and provide what our community needed.”
The tribe continued delivering healthcare, social services, and elder programs, making sure people who needed assistance were fed every single day. Its clinic carried out testing and later on administered the vaccines. Everyone was welcome.
“A lot of our population doesn’t have the ability to travel every day to groceries, so …we came up with the idea,” Frank said.
Three times a week they started putting together food bags, 30-35 a day, and delivering them. Next was the butcher in Fallon who got on board and gave the tribe a discount. From there, the tribe got connected to a food bank. Then the volume rose to around 70 boxes delivered to seniors and others with all the staples and fresh produce.
“We pitched it to [tribal chairman] Amber and said, ‘Hey, could we try to build a community store to put staple items?’ We contacted Bonanza in Reno [a wholesale produce seller]… because they couldn’t get the produce out fast enough, they were willing to open up to anybody who wanted to buy so we were buying produce from them through our CARES funding.”
As they kept going, more and more connections grew. “I met the guy [at the food bank], Chris Gleam, and he’s like, ‘Hey, have you guys thought about ever doing the food pantry?’ I said, ‘What’s a food pantry?’,” Frank recalled.
“And so we started talking about a food pantry and in January of last year, we signed the agreement and we opened our doors for a food pantry.”
From that moment on, it was a snowball effect: a food pantry, mobile harvest program, senior produce program, kid’s cafe. Each program built off of the last. In April of last year, Frank was able to get more funding allocated through the CARES Act to hire two full-time employees. The food pantry and related food programs continue to grow.
Growing Into the Future
The tribe is working on its garden and plans to build a new building for its food pantry, currently housed in an old information-technology building. By tapping multiple resources and grants the tribe grew its programs in different directions all at once, letting them support one another.
“It’s [the new building] also going to have a kitchen so we can do cooking classes, how to use the food that we have. Our nutritionist would come in and show you how to have nutritious food. We’re working on our traditional berries to bring those back and grow them here,” Frank said.
“But then that turns into cultural tradition of bringing our elders out there so they can teach the kids why this is our fruit. How do you eat it? How do you use it? Then coming back and doing canning classes, how to make jams, how to do different things? It just kept building and building and building. I’m excited to see where it goes in the next year.”
The future is coming in fast. Most recently, the Walker River Paiute Tribe became a part of a historic agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA “has signed a cooperative agreement with Walker River Paiute Tribe under the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program (LFPA),” stated USDA’s press release.
Together with the Agai-Dicutta Local Food Purchase Program the tribe will source and distribute locally and regionally produced eggs, dairy, and produce at the Reservation.
“We are excited to collaborate with USDA by being the first tribal nation to sign a Local Food Purchase Agreement. Our partnership will benefit local producers throughout the Great Basin area and provide our tribal citizens access to healthy foods…,” Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres was quoted saying in the press release. “I truly believe no one knows the needs of our tribal citizens better than the tribe and the people we serve. Despite the challenges the Covid-19 pandemic presented the tribe over the past two years, this program continues to show our resiliency as a tribal nation.