Nearly every person in Bucks County who relies on a food pantry for help goes without fruits and vegetables altogether if the pantry has none to offer.
Zach Gihorski and other like-minded students at Delaware Valley College want to help change that. And they hope that change will come as early as the spring growing season.
The college in Doylestown Township announced Friday that it is donating one acre of land for a community garden. The crops will be planted, cared for and harvested by volunteers and students like Gihorski, and the resulting produce will be donated to Bucks County food pantries.
Building the Pipeline
The move by DelVal is part of a growing effort in Bucks to work with farmers and home gardeners to build a pipeline to supply fresh food to local food pantries.
The people who see hunger firsthand every day say it’s making a difference.
“That’s probably about 700 meals,” said Olenick, the manager of the food program for the Bucks County Opportunity Council. “I’d say that’s pretty effective.”
DelVal’s announcement came at a symposium Friday morning at the college, Hope of the Harvest: Hunger No Longer.
About 140 people attended the conference, in which speakers painted a picture of hunger in Bucks County and attendees brainstormed on solutions to the problems.
Helping area farmers overcome logistical and legal hurdles to donating their excess harvest - whether it's produce or meat or milk - emerged as one practical area of focus.
Most farmers are so busy farming, they simply don't have time to gather their excess and transport it to a food pantry.
Something as simple as volunteering to pick up bags of produce from a nearby farm and drop them off at the nearest food pantry could go a long way to making sure food gets to those who need it, group members said.
And even in relatively affluent Bucks County, that need is growing.
Going Without in Bucks
One of the starkest findings of a 2011 survey of hungry people in Bucks was about fresh produce, said Roger Collins, head of the Bucks County Opportunity Council. Of the 6,743 food pantry clients surveyed, 97 percent go without fresh fruits and vegetables completely if the food pantry has none.
And more people in Bucks County than ever before need help feeding their families, Olenick said.
The number of visits to the county’s 27 food pantries or distribution points has doubled, from about 25,000 around 2005 to about 50,000 in 2011, Olenick said.
“We know this economy has not been kind to many people,” said Russell Redding, DelVal’s Dean of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. “Maybe to us, or to our family members, or someone in our church.
“To get by, we know that many families are skipping meals,” he continued. “Certainly there’s a lot of need. So what do we do? That really is the question.”
Redding outlined a range of ideas, from protecting food assistance when talk turns to cutting entitlements, to forming a volunteer corps to teach people how to garden at home.
The Seed of an Idea Takes Root
Plans for the community garden at DelVal started coming together last October, Gihorski told the audience.
The work will move from the planning to the planting stage in March, he said, when the students start planting tomato seeds in a campus greenhouse.
Redding said the first crops planned include strawberries, apples, cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet corn.
"One acre can produce a lot of stuff," said Redding, who just marked his first full year as DelVal's dean of Agriculture. He previously had been Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture.
As the garden plans progressed, Gihorski, an agricultural education major, said he and his fellow students quickly realized the project could become a vehicle for more than just feeding a person once.
“We want to teach people how to go home and use their own land at home, how to grow and then preserve their own food,” Gihorski said.
Many DelVal students attended the conference, and offered ideas during small group discussions on how to improve the access to fresh produce in Bucks County, a fact that did not escape attention.
“It’s wonderful to hear these young voices, because you’re the ones who are going to have to solve this once we’re not here any more,” said moderator Joanne Connelly.
Many attendees said they were impressed with the positive ideas the conference generated.
“This was a terrific program. Things are getting better,” said Kullie Mellor, a member of the Bucks County League of Women Voters who helped produce a video and booklet on children’s health in Bucks County, “Food For Thought.”
“I was so impressed with the number of organizations here in Bucks County whose sole mission is to feed hungry people,” said Leslie Carson, who lives in Doylestown Township and is interested in food and nutrition issues.
Redding told the audience DelVal was glad for the opportunity to use its agricultural expertise to help the community address such a vital issue.
"Allowing hunger to remain is wrong," the dean said. "People have a right to eat."
Want to get involved? Join the Hunger Nutrition Coalition of Bucks County and attend its next meeting on March 2, at 9:30 a.m. at the Bucks County Opportunity Council offices in Doylestown.