Chester County Food Bank Always Wins Big at Produce Auction
“I once had someone tell me that she didn’t think she deserved fresh food because of the situation she was in. I still remember her saying. ‘I just didn’t think I should deserve this.’ Hearing things like that is why I do this job. Everyone deserves fresh food,” said Anne Shuniak, Community Engagement & Marketing Manager of the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB).
In pursuit of its goal to provide fresh food to everyone, CCFB has broken the mold with farm partnerships, nutritional programs, a raised garden bed program, corporate partnerships and foundations, volunteer initiatives, a commercial kitchen, a mobile food truck and more. In addition, for the last five years the Food Bank has been attending produce auctions one to two times a week to source the freshest food possible at an affordable rate.
The Food Bank invited key community partners (including representatives from Wegman’s, QVC and Vanguard) along to see the auction in action. Produce auctions are exciting events in themselves, with rows upon rows of fresh, locally grown produce waiting for the right (bulk) buyer to sweep them away in the early morning hours. Boxes are stacked on the carts with one sample of the lot cut open and ready for bidders to taste and inspect. Bidders from the CCFB are armed with shopping lists, spoons to taste and pens to take notes.
“This is what being a sustainable community is all about. Everyone wins; the food is produced in PA, so the farmer wins, the community wins and the donated dollars go further,” said Anne.
Ryan Jonas, Senior Market Researcher at the Vanguard Group, was excited to witness the activity with their CCFB partner. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how many people in Chester County are truly in need—there are over 40,000 people who live in Chester County who do not know where their next meal is coming from. The Chester County Food Bank works hard to reduce that number and to make sure that those in need are getting healthy food. Because Vanguard has a large percentage of employees who live in Chester County, it was important to find a food bank to support our annual food drive. Chester County Food Bank not only does a tremendous job of supporting the community with a host of unique and innovative programs, they are in the forefront of fighting two issues at the same time: the war on hunger and the war on obesity. They focus on not only providing food to those in need, but making sure that the food provided is healthy. We have been working with the Chester County Food Bank for many years and they continue to be an amazing partner!”
New to bidding duty this year is Denise Denise Sheehan, Director of Operations. “We have three volunteers that have been going to the auction since we started. They are retired gentlemen that were interested in volunteering with us but wanted to do something different.”
Denise, along with seasoned bidding volunteers, heads to the auction a few times a week. Bidding on items is a lot of pressure when you’re responsible for buying food to feed so many. “When we are up at the auction together we put together a game plan of what we’re looking for along with the price we are willing to pay and how much we can take.” Denise and the team decide on quantity and selection of items for their mega-sized grocery list based on the season and how many families each agency is serving that week
Ryan Jonas was excited to see such a return on their investment at the auction. “It was amazing to see how well the Chester County Food B puts the donation dollars to use. I could not believe that watermelons were selling for $1/melon when they are at least five times that at the local grocery store.”
Denise drove that point home even further. “The auction is definitely the most efficient way to get fresh produce into the
community via our agency network. We pay an average of 25 cents per pound, which is why we prefer cash donations to be able to purchase produce. All of our Direct Distribution programs benefit from cash donations in much the same way. Children and Seniors benefit from donations via our Backpack Program and Senior Box Program as we are able to get great pricing on bulk buys of nonperishable foods. People like the idea of Food Drives because of the instant gratification of seeing the food, but in reality we could buy two to three times more if they did a Fund Drive and we purchased the food. We also rely on cash donations for General Operating—keeping the lights on, fuel in the trucks and staffing.”
On our trip, one of the items on the list was cabbage. Denise (who floated confidently in a sea of dozens of local farmers, market managers and buyers) calmly bid on and won four bins of cabbage, each filled with 80–90 heads. All of the cabbage went to the CCFB’s commercial kitchen to have the outer leaves removed and then out to the agencies to be redistributed to clients. “Some of the produce we purchase does go out on the Fresh2You truck for sale,” she added.
Other winning quantities of produce have a similar journey. Once it returns to the CCFB warehouse it is then weighed and received into inventory. Depending what type of produce it is, it either goes directly to the agencies for redistribution to clients or it goes into the processing kitchen. Items like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage need to have their outer leaves and stalks trimmed before they are bagged and sent to agencies. “We are also purchasing for two other larger food banks this year—Philabundance and Central PA Food Bank. They send their own trucks that take the produce back to their warehouses directly from the auction,” said Denise.
The team at the CCFB is a group of hard-working, passionate individuals that makes up a greater force of positivity and innovation. “The CCFB has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to providing fresh produce—whether we buy it at auction, grow it on one of our partner farms or buy directly from local farmers here in Chester County. We focus on education both at the agency and client level and have created programming that will engage the community at all levels. Our newly crafted mission statement—”We mobilize our community to ensure access to real, healthy food”—is a testament to where we are as an organization, and the funds we receive allow us to continue working toward this.”
Vanguard’s Ryan Jonas added, “In addition to seeing the tremendous buying power that the Chester County Food Bank had at the produce auction, we saw another great way they serve our community through another program. Every year, we ask all of our partner agencies how we can best help them in their efforts to provide for the community, since they are on the front lines. This year, the Chester County Food Bank asked for help with its annual backpack program by providing enough cans of tuna to last the entire year. Many children from low-income families get free or discounted lunch at their school, but on weekends,they cannot rely on this help. Every Friday, the Chester County Food Bank’s backpack program gives these children food to last over the weekend. We searched for the best price for the tuna and then made a purchase of more than 10,000 cans to supply the program for the entire school year. It was amazing to see the money from our employees be able to help so many children.”
Supported by the folks that live, work and play in Chester County, the desire to help is contagious. As Jonas said, “I do want to point out that the money and food that was given to the Chester County Food Bank (and our other partners for the food drive) came 100% from Vanguard’s employees—not the company itself.”