High-end Chester County farms growing food for poor

"We are spreading food around to people who really need it," says farmer Todd Newlin of the Sankanac CSA, which is in its first year as part of the Chester County Food Bank.
"We are spreading food around to people who really need it," says farmer Todd Newlin of the Sankanac CSA, which is in its first year as part of the Chester County Food Bank. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 21, 2014

At the farm at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills in Chester County, the stalks on the chard are a startling fire-truck red.

The eggplants, shiny as the Lexuses and Mercedeses in the parking lot, offer mirrorlike reflections of moneyed folk with the luck and good sense to eat well.

Flawless, fabulous vegetables have long been a perk of the middle and upper classes, who could afford to pay as much as $765 for 24 weeks of produce as part of the community supported agriculture program (CSA) at the farm in Kimberton, known as the Sankanac CSA.

But this is the first full year that the farm has been growing food for the poor - the same impeccable specimens CSA folks get.

"It's all higher quality, not seconds," said farmer Todd Newlin, 37. "We are spreading food around to people who really need it."

Sankanac CSA is part of the growing network of the Chester County Food Bank, which is partnering with farms throughout the county to fill its larder with exceptional bounty for the poor.

Poverty is increasing in Chester County - up from 4.5 percent in 2000 to 7.4 percent in 2012, census figures show. This despite the county's designation as one of the richest in America.

That poor people are living on what scientists declare to be some of the finest soil in America doesn't sit well with people such as Bill Shick, agriculture program manager for the food bank.

"It's ironic, in the midst of plenty, to have so many hungry people," said Shick, who was trained as a plant and soil microbiologist.

Last year, the food bank collected 110,000 pounds of produce from five Chester County farms, Shick said. The expected harvest this year, which will include Sankanac CSA's 18,000 pounds, is expected to total 182,300 pounds.

Sankanac CSA is part of the 432-acre Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, a so-called "intentional community" where more than 40 adults with developmental disabilities live. They create crafts, make bread, and sell handmade items, said Felicity Jeans, executive director of Camphill Kimberton.

Several of the residents work with Newlin on the farm.

By donating food to the food bank, "we are creating a mutually sustainable environment where people do what they can to help others in the world," Jeans said.

For Newlin, setting aside food for the poor "adds higher layers of meaning and more depth" to his life.

Born in Downington, Newlin was a "typical suburban kid" whose grandparents had a family farm.

But he was more interested in skateboarding and video games as a young man, and even contributed his share of graffiti to walls in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y.

Still, working with his hands always intrigued Newlin, and after spending some time working in France on farms, he realized the inevitable: "Farming really called to me. I do love it. And I want to get better."

Newlin and Shick, 38, also from Downingtown, have known each other since middle school. It was an easy choice for Shick to look up his old friend and get him involved in feeding the hungry.

Known as a center of agriculture, Chester County attracts young people from around the world who want to work in farming, Newlin said. As proof, he pointed to one of his apprentices, from Latvia.

Also on hand to help out at the farm are corporate types who shed their suits to get busy in the dirt.

You never know who might show up. The other day, Chuck Berardi, regional executive chef for Wegmans Pennsylvania, arrived with some chefs in training to "show them the connection from soil to table."

Before weeding on the farm, the crew had made vegetable casseroles for the food bank and froze them to be distributed later.

"We went through 700 pounds of food in two hours," Berardi said, clearly proud of his crew.

The food bank is still growing, and Shick has high hopes.

"My big-picture dream would be to get lots of Chester County produce into Philadelphia," said Shick, who once worked at the SHARE Food Program in Hunting Park. But, he added, "we can't discount the need 10 minutes up the road in Phoenixville."

Out in bucolic Chester County, watching farm workers helping the sorrel Belgian draft horse Rosey till the pliant black dirt for planting, Shick feels as far as a person can get from the big city.

"I joke that I miss the police helicopters," Shick said. "But there are lots of opportunities here. And we're just beginning."



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