More than feeding the community, the Chester County Food Bank’s innovative model is bringing people together.
During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, food insecurity increased by 54 percent. Chester County Food Bank’s Larry Welsch didn’t expect to see those numbers surpassed anytime soon.
Then came COVID-19. “When this hit, the good thing was that we had the infrastructure for business continuity,” says Welsch, CCFB’s founding executive director, who’s retiring this year. “The amount of food we’ll normally get out in eight weeks we’re delivering in three weeks.”
Even in more stable times, food insecurity is a reality for many people in our region. Since 2009, CCFB has done critical work to address this need. When the federal government shut down two years ago and workers had to remain on the job unpaid, it stepped into the breach, providing a much-needed bridge for local residents. During the pandemic, unemployment numbers rose and access to resources fell. As grocery stores were ravaged, supply chains buckled. Thanks to its community relationships with vendors, CCFB has been able to maintain an inventory of about 500,000 pounds of food throughout the pandemic.
Partnering with some 120 organizations throughout Chester County, CCFB supports food pantries and cupboards, schools, clinics, and senior centers. It’s seen a number of unexpected relationships develop, too. Ingenuity and community have been the drivers of food-security initiatives this year. At the onset of the pandemic, when there was uncertainty about how the virus spread, the food bank lost one of its greatest resources: volunteers. Employees picked up the slack, packing food boxes for distribution. “My staff did heroic work,” says Welsch.
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Now, armed with greater knowledge, volunteers have safely returned. For safety reasons, many pantries are now offering drive-through pick-up or delivery. That means preparing pre-packaged boxes with all the essentials, including fresh produce. Uniquely positioned to offer locally grown fruits and vegetables from its farms, CCFB was determined the keep that going through the pandemic. “From the start of this organization, we’ve really been focused on making sure that people have access to good quality food,” says Wendy Gaynor, CCFB’s director of food security initiatives.
Gaynor and her team want to create lasting food security for Pennsylvanians.
The “Seed to Supper” educational series teaches residents to grow their own herbs and vegetables. Among the seedlings offered this year were peppers, tomatoes, kale, radishes, eggplant and collards. There’s also an “Eat Fresh” series of cooking classes with interactive components via online video. Pre-packaged boxes include produce, a whole grain and a recipe. This past summer, 130 families participated.
A winter session is expected to kick-off at the beginning of 2021.
For those who can’t grow at home, Gaynor continues to offer the Fresh2You Mobile Market. It sells food grown at CCFB and other Pennsylvania farms. Open to everyone, the market accepts payment through the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program and checks from the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Thanks to a matching program for the latter, people can come back and purchase more food at a later date.
From June 2019 to June 2020, statewide SNAP enrollment increased by 9 percent. Much of that occurred at the start of the pandemic when about one in five Pennsylvanians filed for assistance. Under the SNAP Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, doctors at CCFB’s six partner clinics write scripts for fresh produce. These equate to free dollars at the mobile market.
CCFB also hopes to help quell the negativity surrounding food assistance programs. “Everybody was happy to get their stimulus check, and everybody’s happy to take social security. But SNAP—which was formerly food stamps—still has a tremendous stigma around it,” says Janet Zeis,
CCFB director of agency and community partnerships. “Sometimes it’s just making these things part of the cultural norm.”
That became increasingly important as Paycheck Protection Program dollars from Congress ran out, and additional unemployment and rent protection ended. “What’s interesting is that, in many ways, the disaster hasn’t started yet,” Zeis says.
Indeed, CCFB staff understand that they face an uphill battle as the pandemic continues. “And we don’t see this ending soon,” says Welsch.
Surrounding communities have stepped up to aid in CCFB’s efforts. Groups like the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network and #inthistogetherPVX have activated their partner organizations to address needs. “It’s been amazing to watch this community come together and support what we’re trying to do,” says Welsch.
Southern Chester County Opportunity Network even established an ad hoc warehouse. “They became the second largest food distributor following the Chester County Food Bank,” says Zeis.
With so much upheaval in 2020, celebrations are needed for families at the end of the year. “And we’re planning on doing that,” says Gaynor.
CCFB has been working with its partner agencies for months to determine what food they’ll need. “I think it’s going to be more important than ever to make sure families have some semblance of normalcy in a really hard year,” Gaynor says.