As the county’s central hunger relief organization, the Chester County Food Bank serves more than 120 partner agencies and distributes more than three million pounds of healthy food to those in need. While much of the food is secured though donations, food assistance programs, and grant money, the Food Bank strives for a third of the food it distributes to be fresh from its own Agricultural Program, the success of which depends on a steady supply of volunteers. Lack of transportation, limited income, or scarcity of adequate grocery stores are barriers for many to acquire fresh food as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Through partnerships with local farms, the Ag Program helps break down these barriers by growing, harvesting, and delivering produce to the Food Bank to be processed, packaged, and distributed.
One of those local farms, Pete’s Produce Farm in West Chester, was originally involved with the Chester County Gleaning Program that gathered excess produce from local farms that would otherwise go to waste. Seven years ago, the Food Bank added its own on-site farmer, Bill Shick, who is the current Agricultural Program Director, to help increase production on the land that owner Pete Flynn has allocated to them.
“When I came on, I inherited that relationship with Pete’s farm and expanded it to have more diversity in what we were growing,” said Shick. “Pete continues to do all the tractor work and helps us maintain the irrigation systems, but we took on the responsibility of growing our own seedlings, planting the crops, harvesting, and getting the harvest back to the Food Bank, where the Produce Manager, warehouse staff, and logistics team handle all the re-packaging of the produce.” To help plant and harvest more than 200,000 pounds of fresh produce each season, the Ag Program depends heavily on a willing group of volunteers from the community. The COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of this year’s growing season, however, cast doubt on how many crops to grow and on how many hands would be available to help bring in the harvest.
“What keeps this job and what keeps farming interesting is that every year is different,” said Shick. “We had no idea what to expect earlier this season due to the pandemic. Our gut reaction was to grow more because we were worried about the food supply, but then we were worried about not having the help to pick it.”
An ironic twist to the pandemic’s economic toll is that – with more people temporarily furloughed, more having flexible work schedules, and fewer taking vacations – there is a greater labor supply to lend a hand on the farm. “We usually struggle with getting volunteers in the summer,” said Shick, “but this year we have more help than ever before. We offer an outdoor opportunity that people feel safer with right now, and we also offer the room to social distance.”
Besides Pete’s Produce Farm, the Ag Program has a greenhouse at Springton Manor Farm in Glenmoore. It is also involved with the horticultural program at the Chester County Intermediate Unit. Colin Mahoney, the Food Bank’s Farm Manager, helps Shick plan which crops to grow and manages the volunteer shifts in the field. He is proud of the different types of produce the Ag Program generates. “We grow spinach, tomatoes, corn, cabbage, peppers, onions, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cilantro, parsley, mustard greens, and basil,” Mahoney said. “The produce will go for general distribution to our network of food pantries, but also a variety will go to our Fresh2You Mobile Market and Eat Fresh cooking classes.”
The Food Bank appreciates any help it can get out in the field, but making sure volunteers do everything properly, wear gloves, and practice social distancing has taken more time and supervision this year. “To maintain basic safety protocols, we’ve scaled back our capacity this year,” said Mahoney. “We’ve been counting on about 70 volunteers per week, doing about 200 hours of work. Bill and I are the only farmers, so it would be hard to do it all by ourselves. We really rely on the volunteers.” “We’ve been extremely fortunate with a powerful volunteer response this season despite all of its challenges, but it’s crucial that we keep the momentum going through the holidays,” said Lauren Van Dyk, Volunteer Coordinator. The Food Bank is more limited in the number of volunteers it can work with at once due to COVID-19 protocols, and spots do fill up quickly. The Food Bank will seek helpers to join it through the fall. Check the online calendar regularly to view new opportunities.