Montco fresh-food network grows invaluable

Joel Alderfer, garden coordinator at Salford Mennonite Church, says participating in the Cultivating Communities Campaign network, which hands out produce to people in need via 16 distribution sites, is "part of our theology."
Joel Alderfer, garden coordinator at Salford Mennonite Church, says participating in the Cultivating Communities Campaign network, which hands out produce to people in need via 16 distribution sites, is "part of our theology." (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff)
Posted: September 02, 2012

Encore Experiences at Harleysville, a support center for seniors, had a small budget but a big goal: find a source of more fresh, nutritious food for the growing group of clients who counted on it for their daily lunches.

"The cost of food was rising and the number of people we serve was going up," said Robin Burstein, the nonprofit's executive director. "It was a double whammy."

But Encore became the beneficiary of a double blessing - first from a Boy Scout who planted a garden for the center, then from a coalition of North Penn-area groups on a mission to fight hunger and poor nutrition in their midst.

In the last two years, the Cultivating Communities Campaign (CCC) - a network of community gardens, food pantries, soup kitchens, nutrition educators, and service groups - has handed out nearly 17,000 pounds of produce through 16 distribution sites in the North Penn/Indian Valley area of central Montgomery County. An estimated 800 pounds of vegetables and fruit have gone to the Encore center alone, which feeds 100 people a day.

Montgomery County is one of the state's wealthiest, yet nearly 10 percent of adults and 16 percent of children do not have enough food for an active, healthy life, according to a study released in April by the North Penn Community Health Foundation and Drexel University's Center for Hunger-Free Communities.

Pantries, soup kitchens, and support centers are "really vital lifelines," said Russell Johnson, the foundation's executive director. "And yet it was a challenge for those organizations to have enough high-quality food."

Under the CCC program, community gardeners grow the vegetables and fruits that pantries, soup kitchens, and senior centers distribute. A county nutritionist teaches recipients how to prepare the produce. Master gardeners and food preservers give advice on growing and storing.

The initiative was led by the North Penn health foundation, a 10-year-old charity that has put $177,000 into the program. Its partners include Penn State Extension of Montgomery County; the Montgomery County Health Department; and the Health Promotion Council and Food Trust, both in Philadelphia.

The involvement of a dozen community gardens is unique in the county, county spokesman Frank Custer said.

The North Penn project is patterned on the Chester County Food Bank, which is a "premier" effort in the state, said Sheila Christopher, executive director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, a network of food banks and charities.

In Chester County, community gardens and farmers grow crops specifically for the food bank, which distributes 1.2 million pounds of fruits and vegetables annually to 65 organizations.

"We're not there yet, but that is the vision," said Courtney Grove, program manager at the Health Promotion Council.

CCC officials are teaming gardens with service groups that will tend them and organizations that will distribute the food. Farmers also sometimes donate to the program.

Gardens are planted in places such as Vernfield Elementary School and Salford Mennonite Church. Boy Scouts and bar and bat mitzvah students tend them.

At Encore, Kevin Hanlon created a community garden as an Eagle Scout project, laying the groundwork for the senior center to become part of the Cultivating Communities Campaign.

Valeria DePaulis, 89, of Telford, has picked up tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers from Encore and said the fresh produce makes her happy.

Salford Mennonite had grown produce on its one-acre plot to distribute to local pantries and senior centers for several years before becoming part of the initiative.

"We see it as an outreach," said Joel Alderfer, the church's garden coordinator. "It's part of our theology that we don't want to be just consumers in our modern culture, but also producers. With God's help, we want to bring forth produce from the earth and we want to share it."

Some of that produce lands in the kitchen of Manna on Main Street, a Lansdale food pantry and soup kitchen where food service manager Antonia Tyris and her coworkers and volunteers serve lunch and dinner daily. Last month, it hosted a four-hour workshop on safe food-preservation techniques.

Master food preservers Beth Miller and Charles Breinig and program educator Mandel Smith, all with the Penn State Extension of Montgomery County, taught a group of 15 Manna volunteers how to safely freeze fruits and vegetables.

But some vegetables are better fresh than frozen. In the case of a recently donated batch of swiss chard, offering it to the pantry's clients upon arrival was a better option.

"This is so fresh and full of nutrients and vitamins," Tyris said. "It's so much better than something that has been canned, processed, and sitting in the supermarket."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or

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