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Amid holiday canned-food drives, U.S. food banks take up farming

Chester County Food Bank agricultural director Bill Shick examines young lettuce plants growing in a hydroponic bed in a greenhouse, where t
Chester County Food Bank agricultural director Bill Shick examines young lettuce plants growing in a hydroponic bed in a greenhouse, where t

By Daniel Kelley

GLENMOORE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Surrounded by rows of kale and collard greens, Bill Shick ticks off statistics about yields and the man-hours it takes to harvest the leafy green vegetables.

What he can't tell you is what he would sell it for - because it will all be given away by the Chester County Food Bank in its efforts to grow food for the needy. The fresh produce program gives low-sodium, low-sugar foods to the poorest Americans year-round, including during the holiday season often associated with canned-food drives.

"We picked a thousand pounds this weekend and we'll do another thousand next week," Shick, the food bank's agricultural director said, while standing in a greenhouse where the program grows seedlings in a suburban Philadelphia park.

Chester County is among about 20 food banks across the country that have started their own farms to boost healthier eating by the needy, said Domenic Vitiello, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied food pantry agricultural operations.

Low-income Americans are a demographic often plagued by diet-related ailments such as diabetes and heart disease.

Chester County Food Bank opened about five years ago, springing from the ashes of a similar program that relied on nearby Amish farmers. It was started explicitly with the goal of distributing food straight from the field.

Canned food that is often donated to food banks because of its long shelf life is typically higher in sodium, which the American Heart Association says may increase risk for heart failure. People with diabetes also are encouraged to limit the sodium in their daily diet to 1,500 mg to help prevent or control high blood pressure, according to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"The cans we've gotten in through the years - it's not the healthiest stuff," said Larry Welsch, Chester County Food Bank's executive director. "I've gotten cans of pickled cactus with 2,800 (milli) grams of sodium."

CONTRIBUTING THROUGH VOLUNTEERING

"When we formed this food bank," Welsch said, "it wasn't going to be cans in, cans out."

The farming effort has offered the public new ways to contribute to the food pantry.

"People are very excited to volunteer in the field," Shick said. "It isn't stuffing envelopes and putting cans in a box."

In three growing houses in Chester County's Springton Manor Farm park, the food bank cultivates seedlings for its partners, including private farmers and corporations such as Endo Health Solutions and Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Vanguard Group. Some schools use the seedlings to grow vegetables for student lunches, others raise their own crops in horticulture and culinary programs, and donate to the food bank what they do not use.

The charity grows food on more than a dozen acres spread across multiple sites. To supplement its crop yield, the food bank buys from a farm auction in nearby Lancaster County.

Fresh produce makes up about 22 percent of the edibles the Chester County Food Bank distributes. It ranks sixth-highest in the nation for the amount of fresh produce it distributes as a percentage of all the food it gives out, according to statistics compiled by a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

Growing produce allows food banks to distribute a wider variety, including leafy greens, Shick said.

But it also means footing the expense of buying commercial refrigerators and refrigerated trucks, said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for the nonprofit Feeding America. Those costly hurdles have slowed the transition of food cupboards away from canned goods able to last for months in church basements and toward often more nutritious, but perishable food.

Nationwide, most food bank agricultural programs are still in the experimental stages, but they share some characteristics, Vitiello said. They are usually located in wealthier areas because of the start-up expense, and they tend to have educational components that can be just as important as feeding people.

Chester County is Pennsylvania's wealthiest, with an economy buoyed by the pharmaceutical industry. But it also has pockets of poverty, particularly in the Kennett Square area, where there are numerous migrant farm workers who pick mushrooms; and Coatesville, a city whose fortunes have declined as a local steel mill closed and then re-opened with fewer jobs.

Food bank farming programs have important roles to play in educating people to cook and use healthier food, Vitiello said.

"When these programs are training low-income people in learning how to produce their own food, they're playing a different role in the food system and promoting food justice," Vitiello said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Maureen Bavdek)

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