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

Sun Nov 24, 2013 7:24am EST
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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."   Continued...

Chester County Food Bank agricultural director Bill Shick examines young lettuce plants growing in a hydroponic bed in a greenhouse, where the program grows seedlings, in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Tom Mihalek