Wegmans steps up to fill Food Bank’s bare cupboards
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
The crew of about 15 employees from Wegmans’ Downingtown supermarket demonstrated well-honed skills, juggling cartons, cans and boxes with finesse – but not in their customary venue.
A little before 10 a.m. on Thursday, a Wegmans tractor-trailer laden with 18,000 pounds of food pulled up to the Chester County Food Bank’s dock in Guthriesville, unloading a bounty that required immediate attention.
Phoebe Kitson Davis, the Food Bank’s program manager, explained that items needed to be checked and sorted. Related products such as pastas and couscous or cereals and breakfast bars had to be grouped together, and expiration dates needed to be checked, setting aside those with a shorter shelf life.
Within minutes, the team formed an efficient assembly line, and the staff at the Food Bank breathed a sigh of relief. “The cupboard was bare,” said Kitson Davis. But unlike the nursery rhyme’s old Mother Hubbard, the Food Bank had received a rescue from one of its regular benefactors.
Kitson Davis said many donations come in over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and Vanguard, another regular donor, runs a big food drive in June. In between, a lull often occurs, and this year it coincided with a drop in state and federal subsidies, she said.
Larry Welsch, the Food Bank’s executive director, said the organization put the word out that help was needed. “They heard the call and really stepped up,” he said of Wegmans. “These guys are tremendous; they always come through.”
Welsch said in addition to Thursday’s delivery, Wegmans recently donated $57,367 to the Food Bank through its Care About Hunger campaigns at the Downingtown and Malvern stores. The program allows customers to donate $1 or more at checkout to help feed the needy. The stores, which the company hopes will include a Chadds Ford addition in the next couple of years, also distribute perishables daily, such as day-old bread, to area food cupboards.
And when the Food Bank solicited bids for its Backpack Program, which provides healthy snacks and fruits and vegetables to about 1,000 kindergartners a month, Wegmans got the business, beating out three wholesalers with its discount, Welsch said.
“That’s the way it should be,” said Kurt Husebo, who manages the Downingtown store. “This community has been very good to us. In fact, southeastern Pennsylvania has been good to us.”
The community’s affluence often belies its needs, Welsch said. “It’s amazing that a county this wealthy has so many people struggling, but it’s very expensive to live here.” Reports on poverty by nonprofit groups often show that making ends meet costs more in Chester County than in most U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Welsch said many of the stories are heart-breaking. For example, one volunteer at a Coatesville cupboard started to get annoyed recently when one woman kept walking up and down and examining items without making a choice. It turned out that she was looking for food that didn’t require heating because she and her young daughter lived in one room and had no cooking facility, Welsh said. “They had learned to eat SpaghettiOs cold,” he said.
The Chester County Food Bank began in 2009 after the CARES Food Network, the former distribution clearinghouse for food cupboards and meal sites in the county, faced bankruptcy. Since then, the Food Bank has distributed over 1.7 million pounds of food per year to over 90 organizations that include food cupboards and meal sites.
Under the leadership of Welsch and Robert D. McNeil, the board president, the Food Bank’s goal is not to alleviate hunger, but to prevent it. Expanded programs include community gardens, gleaning, and a new nutrition education program.
“We couldn’t do what we do without them and the other regular contributors,” said Kitson Davis as the Wegmans workers showed no signs of slowing down. “I am so impressed by Wegmans’ support of the Food Bank – from the corporation in Rochester to the cashiers in Downingtown and Malvern. They are all just remarkable.”
Kitson Davis said much of the food being sorted – from black bean and rice soup to applesauce – would end up on family tables by Monday and could be all be gone within a week. “This is so appreciated,” she said. “My only regret is that I can’t do anything more than say thank you to these wonderful people.”
Maneesh Chudasama, service area manager in the Downingtown store, shrugged off the praise. “We’re all having fun,” he said.
“And for a good cause,” added Kim Lindner, a 22-year Wegmans employee.
For more information on the Chester County Food Bank, go to www.chestercountyfoodbank.org, call 610-873- 6000, or visit the warehouse at 1208 Horseshoe Pike, Downingtown.