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 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 In school cafeterias, traditional USDA foods have gradually been replaced by fresh food, and CCFB has offered support in the kitchens through recipes and instructions for healthy food handling and preparation.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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