by June Portnoy
Several years ago, Cathy Snyder volunteered her time stocking shelves at Fisherman’s Mark food pantry in Lambertville, which serves families in need living in the New Hope-Solebury community and surrounding counties. Although this pantry offered plenty of canned, boxed and processed food, there was rarely, if ever, fresh produce available.
While still working there, Cathy visited a few local farms and discovered that farmers typically grow more produce than they sell to ensure they don’t run out. As a result, this excess food usually goes to waste.
“When I realized there was fresh produce so close to our pantry being wasted, I felt a sense of injustice,” said Cathy. “It seemed unfair that people who couldn’t afford fresh produce had to go without it when a surplus existed in their own community.”
A recent survey by the Hunger Nutrition Coalition of Bucks County confirmed what Cathy was realizing: more than 95% of food pantry recipients cannot afford fresh fruits or vegetables for their families if their pantry does not provide it, seriously limiting their nutritional choices.
“I envisioned how simple it would be if some of these farmers shared their extra produce with people in need.”
And so, Cathy set out to transform her vision into a reality. She started by reaching out to several farms, asking if they were willing to donate their extra fresh produce to their neighbors in need. Next, she began researching other Bucks County sites in need of fresh produce, and she established connections with them.
In 2009, Cathy founded Rolling Harvest Food Rescue with just a few volunteers, a couple of farms and one or two sites. Over the years, Rolling Harvest has grown significantly, and today it is completing its fourth season, recently becoming a non-profit organization.
Cathy now has 32 volunteers picking up extra produce from 17 different farms and distributing these fresh fruits and vegetables to 27 Bucks County sites, such as soup kitchens, low-income senior housing, domestic violence and homeless shelters and food pantries. Their work also extends into parts of Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey.
“We developed a simple model of making it easy for farmers to donate their produce by making sure we’re at their farm at their convenience according to their own schedules,” said Cathy.
“In the past, we didn’t know what to do with the produce we didn’t use, but now Cathy comes to rescue this surplus to give it to those in need who truly appreciate it,” said John Yerkes, owner of None Such Farm in Buckingham, a significant provider of produce to Rolling Harvest.
“These farmers don’t have the time or labor to figure out where to donate their extra produce, but they trust us to take their leftovers where it’s needed and I’m grateful to have earned their trust,” said Cathy, who is careful to only donate to sites where she’s certain no food will go to waste.
In addition, she makes sure people at these locations can identify the types of produce she delivers and that they carefully label them.
“The food that Rolling Harvest provides our pantries is twice as fresh as what we’d get on supermarket shelves, and the food she brings is always bursting with flavor,” says Melissa Mantz, Development Officer of Bucks County Housing Group, which runs the Doylestown, Penndel and Milford Square food pantries. “Plus, it’s often organic.”
“We deliver this produce immediately after it’s just been picked when it’s the freshest and most nutritious,” said Cathy.
After delivering several crates of fresh picked celestial white corn stalks to a housing shelter, Cathy said she felt like she had just given those residents “a vegetable hug.”
Since Rolling Harvest’s inception, Cathy has formed partnerships with non-profits in the county who all share the mission of ultimately transforming food pantries into free farm markets. To date, Rolling Harvest has established seven free farm markets, including one at Jesus Focus Ministry in Churchville held the third Thursday of each month through December.
The Buckingham Township Civic Association in Buckingham has also joined Rolling Harvest in bringing fresh food to this free farm market.
When Jan Tompkins became president of this association, she approached the Food Program Manager of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, and asked them to match them up with a food pantry that needed their help. This marked the beginning of their relationship with Jesus Focus Ministry.
“We proposed the idea of creating a community garden site at Holicong Park dedicated to growing fresh produce for this food pantry, and the Township Supervisors approved our proposal,” explained Jan.
“Thanks to the dedication of so many volunteers planting and harvesting our Buckingham Community Gardens, we were able to produce and donate 900 pounds of fresh produce last year.”
Also coming on board to this farm market was the Bucks County Opportunity Council, delivering free fresh produce from Delaware Valley College’s Hope of the Harvest, a garden on campus with the charitable mission of growing fresh fruit and vegetables for hungry people in Bucks County and Philadelphia.
“A benefit of our free farm markets is that they are very interactive,” said Cathy. “We don’t just drop off the food and leave; we stay to talk to our visitors to explain what the various vegetables and fruits taste like and how different produce can help their health conditions.
“We also offer free samples and recipes and allow everyone who stops by to take as much as they like.
“By establishing partnerships with other like-minded Bucks County organizations, like we’ve accomplished at Jesus Focus Ministry, we can combine all our resources to continue to provide quality, locally grown, fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables to our neighbors in need.”
For more information about Rolling Harvest Food Rescue, visit www.RollingHarvest.org.
PHOTO CAP: Cathy Snyder (center), founder of Rolling Harvest Food Rescue, delivers crates of fresh picked celestial white corn to volunteers at Doylestown Food Pantry.