Ten years ago, at the height of the recession, the percentage of residents experiencing food insecurity in Chester County had risen to an alarming 54%.
While Chester County remains one of the wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania, pockets of poverty still exist. What’s more, the high cost of living in the county creates another problem; County residents might be employed but are still unable to make ends meet. There are more than 50,000 people in the county who are struggling to meet basic needs, and over 25,000 people who are food insecure but make too much money to qualify for federal programs like SNAP (food stamps).
The Chester County Food Bank was created to address these ongoing issues.
Larry Welsch, the founding executive director of the Food Bank, spoke about the early days of the organization. “We started out of a two-car garage in Parkesburg,” Welsch remembers, “and I drove the food truck and made deliveries myself.” Welsch had been working for Chester County CARES, a distribution center for food cupboards and meal sites throughout the County. When that organization faced bankruptcy, Ruthie Kranz-Carl from the Chester County Department of Human Services reached out to Welsch and to local philanthropist Bob McNeil and asked them to lead an advisory committee to create a new county-wide food bank.
After the first meeting of that committee, Welsch and McNeil exchanged early morning emails that made it clear they were of the same mind regarding this new nonprofit. “Bob emailed me at 4:45 in the morning, and I replied at 4:48,” Welsch recounts. “We both realized that we were missing an opportunity to impact the health of those we served by not incorporating fresh food and a focus on self-sufficiency and health into the program. Bob was clear from the beginning that he did not just want to put a band-aid on the problem and end up looking like every other canned goods food bank in the country.”
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Because of this foresight, the Food Bank was founded on the philosophy of not only distributing food to meet an immediate need, but also educating the public on the benefits of healthy eating. Several programs were created with this philosophy in mind, including community raised-bed gardens, senior food boxes, summer food boxes and weekend backpacks for school-age children, a mobile market, and bilingual cooking classes based at several area health clinics.
The Food Bank quickly outgrew its original location and is now located in a 36,000-foot facility in Exton which includes a fully certified production kitchen. The kitchen is used to clean fresh produce received from local farms, but the organization realized that it could be utilized in other ways as well.
In September of 2018 a new program called FRESHstart Kitchen was formed in order to educate and prepare low-income residents for opportunities and sustainable employment in the food service industry. FRESH is an acronym for Focusing Resources on Employment, Self-Sufficiency and Health, and the tuition-free program was specifically designed to assist individuals with limited work experience, modest academic skills and significant personal challenges, including substance abuse and criminal records.
Led by executive chef Ranney Moran and workforce development manager Amy Rossman, FRESHstart Kitchen assists enrolled participants in acquiring a specific skill set with a 12-week culinary arts training program. With three graduating cohorts per year, each class is open to up to ten students, for a total 30 students annually. The program operates eight hours per day, Monday through Friday, and provides the following instruction and supports: Culinary Arts Instruction & Training; Life Skills & Job Readiness; and Internship, Job Search and Placement Assistance.
Welsch is looking to retire in the near future, and the board has already started looking at succession planning.
“When the Food Bank opened, one of the first meetings I had was with Charles Genuardi of the Genuardi Foundation. He told me that I had to start planning right away for the ‘what happens if you get hit by a bus’ scenario,” Welsch says. “Bob also set a great example; he had agreed to chair the board for six years, and in that sixth year, he and the board worked on planning for his replacement. Even though they are no longer involved on a day-to-day basis, I still meet regularly with Bob and Ruthie to keep them up to date.”
According to current board chair Lauren Harrell, “Larry, as the food bank’s first executive director, has guided this organization to what it’s become today. His leadership impact is evident in how cohesive the team is and their dedication to the mission.”
Welsch also focuses on the people. “Of everything I’ve done with the Food Bank over the years, I’m most proud of the people I’ve hired. I have tried to hire people smarter than me, and their enthusiasm for tackling complex issues has led to innovation and impactful community collaborations.”
“This has never seemed like a real job to me,” he added. “I love what I do, and I know that the work we do here will continue to make a difference.”-30-
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