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Second Helpings for the Holidays: Chester County Food Bank Succes Story

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Chester County Food Bank executive director Larry Welsch at Springton Manor Farm. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Even before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Barb Nissel was seeking out local sources of fruits and vegetables for students in the Great Valley School District.

It wasn’t working.

In one case, a farmer had a sick cow and couldn’t meet keep an appointment. At an orchard, the former food services director arrived with a school district check in hand—only the grower wanted cash.

That was all before she connected with Chester County Food Bank. The organization had begun buying fresh food twice a week at local auctions to help feed the hungry—some 350,000 pounds of it a year at a rate of 28 cents per pound. Nissel got to thinking, “How can we piggyback with the bank?”

Meanwhile, the district cleared an acre of land so she could start growing food on her own. The food bank helped her put in raised beds and a hoop house to extend the growing season. The nonprofit even helped install irrigation lines to replace the soaker hoses. “The food bank has been a tremendous resource for us,” says Nissel, who has since joined its board of directors. “Our partnership enhanced everything we do. In this day and age, you can’t do it alone.”

The initiative at Great Valley has amounted to a community-wide cooperative effort that’s attracted help from local farmers, $10,000 in donated deer fencing from a Coatesville business, and multiple grants. Even more impressive, Nissel was able to save her cash-strapped school district up to $25,000 in annual food costs. And then there’s the asparagus breakthrough. “We didn’t know if our kids would eat it,” she says. “They love it.”

Now, a few times a month, two retired teachers run an in-school farmers’ market, and there are fresh-food preparation instructions and recipes on the district’s website. At the elementary level, taste tests are held for things like red, green and yellow peppers, with student preferences grown in the district garden.

Great Valley’s success reflects the food bank’s revamped goals and vision. It’s been an epiphany, really—one that came via an early-morning email from Chester County Food Bank board chairman Robert McNeil to executive committee members just seven days into 2010. And while the note went out at 4:57 a.m., he knew exe-cutive director Larry Welsch would see it right away. “He doesn’t sleep,” says McNeil.

The essence of the email was actually quite simple—that education will help abolish hunger in Chester County by enabling more residents to end the vicious circle of poverty. “We could do better than just advocating,” McNeil wrote.

It’s what the nonprofit is now calling its biggest, boldest direction yet. This time, all kids and families will be addressed—not just low-income residents. And if parents don’t follow their children’s lead, board member Dick Vermeil is waiting in the wings with a nutrition-education video and ad campaign.

“We always fed folks in poverty,” says Welsch. “Now, we have the opportunity to teach kids and families how to eat well.”
 

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These days, everything about Chester County Food Bank is big—and getting bigger. The old headquarters in Downingtown was 9,600 square feet; the new one at Eagleview Corporate Center in Exton is 36,000. Food moves through the place in alarming quantities and at incredible speeds. Fresh produce is never there longer than 24 hours; last year, the food bank moved 654,609 pounds of it.

The most recent census figures can be deceiving. They show Chester County as the wealthiest county in the state. It was also ranked among the 25 richest counties in the United States by Forbes magazine in 2012. Yet, the need has never been greater in some places. The median household income of West Chester borough residents, for example, is barely more than half that of the county’s, and the percentage of people in poverty there is four times the county’s rate and twice the state’s.

CCFB is taking aim at those numbers. Among like-minded service agencies nationwide, it ranks sixth in the amount of fresh food it distributes—22 percent. Mostly, only California operations rank higher, because they can grow year-round. In the fall of 2009, Chester County Food Bank took over for Chester County Cares after it went bankrupt. More of a typical food bank, CCC had fewer than 25 raised beds scattered around the county. By comparison, CCFB has 600 raised beds at schools, churches, community gardens and even area businesses like QVC, Endo and Vanguard.

“[The businesses] say to their people, ‘If you can’t get out and do your community service, then do it here,’” says Welsch. “The whole county has come out to help—and is still out.”

The food bank also serves 60 other nonprofits and supplies 30 volunteer cupboards and food outlets. There are 10 full-time employees and an 18-member board. Last year, the nonprofit engaged 3,300 individual volunteers. Two summers ago, home gardeners gleaned  6,000 pounds of extra produce for the bank. This past summer, early estimates put the number at eight times that much.

Last year, the nonprofit grew more than 250,000 pounds of its own produce; that figure will top 300,000 in 2013. Pete Flynn, of Pete’s Produce Farm in West Chester, donates 54,000 pounds of produce a year, planting 2,800 tomato plants for the food bank. Flynn, incidentally, is also vice president of the board.

In all, the bank partners with 41 farmers. Last year, for the first time, CCFB began contracting with farmers, paying them to grow. The bank works with the likes of H.G. Haskell and his SIW Vegetables in Chadds Ford, Vollmecke Orchards in Coatesville, and the Gibbs Farm. The latter is a private farm McNeil owns in Cochranville, where there’s usually 100,000 pounds of sweet corn earmarked for the bank annually.

Springton Manor in Downingtown is Chester County Food Bank’s home farm. Part of a county park, it’s home to educational programs, high tunnels and greenhouses. “Everything has happened so fast; the numbers are just staggering,” Welsch says. “We thought we’d get five to eight years out of our last building. We were there for three.”

In fact, Chester County Food Bank has already outgrown three strategic plans. “We accomplished them,” says McNeil with a gleam in his eye.

Efforts, it seems, are restrained only by the number of volunteers. The organization could grow even more food. It has been offered gobs of farmland, but there simply aren’t the volunteers to grow, harvest and transport the harvest, or man the outlets and programs. And you have to manage the volunteers, too.

There’s a separate dairy program to secure and distribute milk, eggs and cheese. It serves 50,000 county residents. One of the leading partners is Pocopson Meadow Farm, where Becky Baily—a rare female dairy farmer—supplies the bulk of the milk. There’s also the Sharing the Harvest program, in which thousands of pounds of lower-fat, higher-protein deer meat is prepared by four volunteer butchers and handed out with helpful cooking instructions.

With an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, Chester County Food Bank has invested $1.6 million in retrofitting its new home, launching a $5 million campaign to cover related expenses. When the food bank went looking for a new home, Kimberton Whole Foods helped by buying everything at the old location.

With food costs expected to increase ten-fold in the next 20 years, Welsch suggests that any action taken now will make a difference, especially in teaching others how to grow their own healthy food. Right now, farmers represent a mere two percent of the population. “That’s not good,” he says. “It’s scary.”

Educational inroads have also been made with the West Chester School District, where CCFB representatives sat down with teachers and drew up a middle school curriculum that fits the STEM (science, technology, environment and mathematics) model. Piloted last year with 900 students, the program has helped the district retain a family-consumer-science department that may have otherwise been cut. This past June, CCFB and the district tackled the elementary curriculum.
 

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Chester County Food Bank board chairman Bob McNeil in the greenhouse at Springton Manor Farm (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
The classroom presents an opportunity to work directly with children by integrating level-appropriate nutrition education into curriculums also tied to hands-on skills and habits. At Springton Manor, CCFB offers teacher workshops and provides outdoor classroom experiences. In school cafeterias, traditional USDA foods have gradually been replaced by fresh food, and CCFB has offered support in the kitchens through recipes and instructions for healthy food handling and preparation. For the reluctant eaters, the Taste It! program has been launched in participating school cafeterias. “We’re addressing what is good, but also what’s better,” says McNeil.

Outside the schools, the food bank is identifying pockets of need all over Chester County—because, while pantries have been providing food, families don’t always know how to prepare it. Through a partnership with West Chester University, cookbooks were printed and distributed to pantries, and cooking classes scheduled. The food bank has also partnered community agencies like the Clinic of
Phoenixville—even monitoring people’s health in conjunction with the Chester County Hospital.

And CCFB is teaching the vulnerable how to be more accountable. The Eat Fresh program helps young moms with shopping and meal preparation while improving their access to fresh produce. “Then, we hope they teach their friends,” says CCFB board member Adele Corbett.

Without a doubt, Great Valley has been CCFB’s model of success. And that district’s effort ought to be an impetus for others to follow.

On the first day of last school year, Great Valley students returned to 1,200 ears of corn. At the height of the summer harvest (and recess for the children), area families dedicate a solid week to working in the district’s garden. The Summer Feeding program provides breakfasts and lunches to select children. There are now satellite Summer Feeding sites all over the county.

“We did what we thought was important and necessary for our kids,” says Barb Nissel, who has since retired as Great Valley’s food services director to start her own Malvern-based consulting company, School Operations Services Group, which helps school districts build external resources. “When we started, the district had just made some [budget] cuts, and so many weren’t happy with the district. But this was a positive.”

CCFB gives schools raised-bed kits at no charge. It’s also looking to expand into high-tunnel growing operations, which would provide for a 10-month season.  Same deal: The food bank would foot the bill to get started. “We don’t want any school to have a reason to say no,” says Welsch.

Currently, there are eight high tunnels in operation—two apiece at Springton Manor, Octorara and Unionville, plus one each at Great Valley and the Phelps School in Malvern. There are 75 schools in the county. “We’d like to get one in every school,” says McNeil, a true philanthropist who once ran nine manufacturing companies and whose Claneil family foundation addresses nutrition and hunger.

Downingtown Area School District is definitely on board. It’s building a sixth-grade learning center at Shamona Creek Elementary School. “Living in an agricultural county has been the key,” Welsch says. “Why not tap these resources?”

In 2005, five years before the advent of CCFB, Welsch helped set up a mobile pantry in Parkesburg. With 65 families involved, he kept it going when he started the food bank. Today, 750 families depend on what is now a stationary site.

The farthest of those CCFB serves are in North Coventry. Its volunteers recently told the food bank not to worry about trucking in food. The raised beds are keeping them fully supplied.

And neighboring counties have begun to take notice. CCFB just supplied 50 raised-bed kits to Lancaster County, and Montgomery County recently sent 16 delegates to learn more. Even the state of Delaware has asked for an initiation.

“It’s not pie in the sky,” says McNeil. “We can change eating habits, alleviating suffering and hunger. It’s just the most rewarding work you can do.”

Chester County Food Bank’s Impressive Numbers

250,000 pounds of produce grown by the food bank in 2012 • 654,609 pounds of fresh produce moved by the food bank in 2012 • 300,000pounds of produce grown by CCFB in 2013 • 48,000 estimated pounds of fresh produce grown in the home gardens of CCFB volunteers this past summer • 49 raised beds at local school • 13,000 students participating in the county-wide Taste It! program • 20 raised beds at Vanguard • 7,500 pounds of venison meat distributed annually through the Sharing the Harvest program.

Visit chestercountyfoodbank.org.

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