Chester County Food Bank, volunteers gratefully accept Wegmans’ bounty
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
At first glance, the energetic crew efficiently exchanging cartons and banter at the Chester County Food Bank looked like old friends – and masters of their task.
In reality, many of them had just met minutes earlier and a few had never experienced the kind of daunting challenge laid down by a Wegmans tractor-trailer: 18,173 pounds of food that had to be sorted.
Fortunately, the group – a mix that included employees from Wegmans, the Town Dish, Liberty Mutual, and assorted other volunteers – had some advantages. For starters, some of the Wegmans workers had visited the Food Bank about a year ago when the company heard that supplies were low and answered the need with a similar, 18,000-pound-plus delivery.
Kurt Husebo and Jerry Shelly, managers of the Downingtown and Malvern Wegmans respectively – and veterans of the sorting regimen – said a few of their employees knew the drill from past donations; however, they also try to include workers who haven’t had the opportunity before. “A lot of our folks really want to come,” Husebo said. And even the novices are pretty well-versed in sorting and stocking skills.
Related products, such as pastas, 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, assembly lines had formed, and former strangers were sharing boxes, tapes, markers and conversation.
“We’re all about food all the time so this fits right in for us,” said Amy Strauss of the Town Dish, an online culinary destination. Then she handed a carton to Peter Schiesser, a Liberty Mutual employee and partner in the assembly line. “When you sort food with people, you’re friends forever,” she explained.
An unseen bond is also formed with the recipients, Food Bank officials say. In a county associated with affluence, the gap between the haves and the have nots has risen during the economic downturn. Statistics show that one in 10 Chester County residents go hungry on any given day. Reports on poverty by nonprofit groups routinely demonstrate that making ends meet costs more in Chester County than in many large U.S. cities, such as Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
In September 2010, the Food Bank, an independent nonprofit that acts as a clearinghouse for the county’s approximately 90 food cupboards, moved into a complex in East Brandywine Township so it could expand its operations. In addition to adding flash-freezers and dehydrators to extend the growing season, the Food Bank grew existing initiatives like its gleaning and raised-bed programs to provide fresh produce, and it added new educational and nutrition programs. Then, less than four years later, it outgrew its space.
This past summer, the Food Bank moved into a Uwchlan Township facility that quadrupled its square footage to 36,000. Up until a month ago, the Wegmans’ store managers hadn’t seen the new digs, and so Husebo and Shelly paid a visit. While conferring with Larry Welsch, the Food Bank’s executive director, they learned which cupboards were bare and which items were scarce, setting up the delivery that brought everyone together last week.
“I can’t say enough about what a great community partner Wegmans has been,” said Welsch. He said the stores contribute through their Care About Hunger campaigns that allow customers to donate $1 or more at checkout to help feed the needy. The stores 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 produce to about 1,000 kindergartners a month, Wegmans offered a bigger discount than three wholesalers, Welsch said.
Shelly said giving back to the community is encouraged by the company. “This is the kind of thing they want us to,” he said. “Plus, it’s fun.”
Anne Shuniak, community outreach and marketing director for the Chester County Food Bank, said the Food Bank is employing a variety of programs in an effort to prevent, not just assuage hunger. On the same day that the crew tamed the massive Wegmans’ donation, another group of volunteers was working in the fields at Pete’s Produce in Westtown Township, a regular supplier of fresh-picked edibles.
Strauss said typically when her group volunteers, an enormous deposit of food hasn’t just occurred. “This is pretty exciting,” she said.
Volunteers are always welcome in myriad capacities, Shuniak said. To find out how to help, visit http://chestercountyfoodbank.org/donate/volunteers/.