“I grew up in the city. I couldn’t grow a tomato if I tried,” laughs Elmer Duckinfield, when asked what inspired him to become Chester County’s first official farm gleaning volunteer back in 1996. Elmer’s humility, dedication and quick humor become evident as we explored the origin of one of our most successful campaigns to get fresh produce into the hands of those experiencing food insecurity in our area.
Though Elmer, an octogenarian, has considered himself officially retired from the volunteer circuit for the past four years, back in 1996 an idea was brewing and Elmer was quick to embrace it and become a welcome fixture in our community.
In the 90’s, food cupboards were lightly scattered within some of the larger towns of the county, but most of the hard work involved in food donations was done by church volunteer groups, scout food drives and the annual holiday collection.
At the time, Andrew Dinniman, a county commissioner and now a state senator, saw a need to do more. He knew exactly whom he could request to get the job done. “Who says no to Andy?” says Elmer, who had recently retired from Burroughs Corp. when he was tapped to lead the new effort.
Elmer and Senator Dinniman have known each other for many years. Elmer continues, “He has a way of supporting people, and putting a level of confidence in you that makes you want to succeed. We believed that if we approached some of our county’s local farmers, we could find a way to gather the excess large volume crop yield that sometimes went uncollected. Produce like potatoes, peppers, onions and corn were prime targets.”
Thus, the Chester County “gleaning program” idea was born and eventually blossomed into one of the largest fresh produce generators for the county. Today, we see the Food Bank distributing about 200,000 pounds annually to community partners who in turn reach over 40,000 men, women and children in Chester County.
Pete’s Produce in Westtown was one of the first farms that Elmer “staffed” with volunteers. Owner Pete Flynn agreed to set aside several acres for the Gleaning Program that still exists today. “I remember quite a few times leaving the farm at the end of the day and Elmer would still be in the fields with stacks of produce to deliver to the Food Bank,” says Pete. “Even if he was a few volunteers short, he worked hard to get the job done and never once complained.”
Soliciting volunteers was something that Elmer had little experience with early on. He worked with the Grove Methodist Church initially to come up with lists of names. “There were no computers or cell phones back then. I did everything with pen, paper and my ear to the phone,” says Elmer. “I had to make schedules and have people ready to go when the crops were ready. There was no time to wait. I was so very fortunate with the many volunteers that have helped with gleaning over the years. They are the ones that make it all possible and worthwhile.”
Longtime volunteers Ed and Mary Fitzpatrick say, “We originally volunteered to assist Elmer with bread and pastries donations from Entenmann’s Bakery, which we boxed and loaded into cars or vans from the various agencies. One day, we discovered that Elmer was heading out to one of the produce farms in the area for some ‘real work’ and we were hooked. It was not unusual to arrive at the site to find he had already started the more difficult tasks himself. When he recruited us to come out at a certain hour, we knew to arrive much earlier because he would have started alone.”
Today, the Chester County Food Bank still requires volunteers to work alongside their staff farmers, Bill Shick and Edil Cunampio. Lots of people, like you, who only need devote a few hours or more to making a difference whether it’s planting or harvesting from one of our now many partnered farms or working in our Eagleview location in the kitchen. As our honorary volunteer chairperson Elmer so simply and wholeheartedly illustrates, thinking outside of ourselves creates an opportunity to improve the quality of lives for others. Elmer and his diverse team are also proof that volunteers of all ages and interests are needed and welcomed. Love to garden? Great! Prefer to help elsewhere along the food chain? That works, too.
Those who speak of Elmer refer to his humility. Never one to take credit for being the first to arrive in the field or the last to leave, Elmer also trained all the volunteers and helped deliver fresh produce from the back of a station wagon.
Elmer has bounced back from hip, cataract and heart surgery. His story continues to serve as a reminder to all of us of how dedication, creativity and hard work generate positive results for our community. Thank you, Elmer. We appreciate you.
Editor’s Note: Elmer lost his brave and quiet battle with cancer on May 6, 2017, surrounded by his beloved family. We vow to carry on his legacy.
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The Chester County Food Bank is the central hunger relief organization serving more than 120 food cupboards, meal sites, schools and social service organizations throughout Chester County. We mobilize our communityto ensure access to real, healthy food.
Top photo by Ed Williams