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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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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