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

Chester County Food Bank’s speedy success story is one of ample creative thinking, mutually beneficial partnerships, and more than a few kids who actually eat their asparagus. But has it grown too fast?

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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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