Rolling Harvest Food Rescue on front lines of feeding hungry

Rolling Harvest Food Rescue brings fresh fruits and vegetables to food pantries, senior and community centers and mobile farmer's markets across the region.

Volunteers and a group of farmers have yielded more than 1.7 million pounds of locally grown produce to Bucks County and beyond for nearly a decade. (Laura Benshoff for The Pulse)

Volunteers and a group of farmers have yielded more than 1.7 million pounds of locally grown produce to Bucks County and beyond for nearly a decade. (Laura Benshoff for The Pulse)

Using a network of devoted volunteers and generous farmers, Rolling Harvest Food Rescue brings fresh fruits and vegetables to food pantries, senior and community centers and mobile farmer’s markets across the region. “Turning food pantries into farmer’s markets, remains our main goal,” says founder, Cathy Snyder.

Built on the simple but powerful mission to provide fresh produce to all, regardless of income, Rolling Harvest Food Rescue is transforming food pantries and free farmer’s market across the region.

It’s recipe for success —a visionary founder, a dedicated band of volunteers and a group of generous farmers — has yielded more than 1.7 million pounds of locally grown produce to Bucks County and beyond for nearly a decade, becoming a critical partner is addressing the needs of a staggering number of hungry and food insecure families.

At the heart of Rolling Harvest is Cathy Snyder, a 61-year-old woman of exceptional energy, skill and devotion. Her cause — easing the suffering of those without enough to eat. Snyder, who now calls Lumberville home, founded the hunger relief organization in 2010, after being struck by the “enormous disparity” between what she was feeding her family and what was available at the food pantry where she was volunteering.

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The first thing you notice about the former TV sales executive is her nearly constant smile and tireless way of talking. The second is her phone, which shows a steady stream of text messages — mostly volunteers responding to a last-minute call from a farmer saying she’s got spinach, a lot of spinach, free for the taking.

“We’re like first responders,” said Snyder, with a grin over her coffee.

A call goes out to several of the food rescue’s 140 core volunteers and within minutes teams are headed to the organic fields of Blue Moon Acres in Buckingham to gather baskets of the nutrient-rich leafy greens the farm wants to donate. Once loaded into personal vehicles, the spinach is headed, that day, straight to a Fresh Connect free mobile farmer’s market in Bristol Township.

The vegetable won’t last long at the open market, Snyder said. “Spinach is so in demand, we don’t have to tell people a lot about it.” Families will flock to get a bag full to take home.

Over the past eight years, Rolling Harvest has blossomed. Growing from Snyder’s initial effort to add a little fresh produce to the dry goods and canned vegetables lining food pantry shelves, it’s now a widely supported nonprofit annually providing 354,000 pounds of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 60 low-income housing developments, senior centers and other hunger-relief locations, according to its 2017 annual report. Rolling Harvest estimates it reaches 22,000 food insecure people monthly in Bucks and Montgomery counties, as well as those in Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey.

Snyder is quick to praise the farmers and volunteers for Rolling Harvest’s success. “The focus,” she stresses, “belongs on them.”

Goodwill abounds in the food rescue’s partnership, which has become an integral part of many communities across Bucks County and beyond.

John Crooke manages the 6-acre Tinicum CSA (community supported agriculture) in Upper Black Eddy, where 210 families share in the harvest of salad greens, arugula, kale and eggplant.

“Rolling Harvest is really great,” said Crooke, who has been donating to the food rescue for some time. “There are situations where we have extra and they send someone to pick up the produce. Other times, we’ve already harvested but we have a bed we can’t get to and they’ll send a gleaning team to rescue food that might just sit,” explained the farmer, who comes from a long line of Bucks County dairy farmers.

“It’s really nice to send produce to places it’s needed,” Crooke said.

And the need is enormous. According to the Hunger Nutrition Coalition’s 2017 survey of food pantry coordinators in Southeastern Pennsylvania, 72 percent said they want fresh vegetables and 26 percent of Bucks County food pantries said they “sometimes” or “often” run out of food.

The National Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit, says on its website that about 40 percent of all uneaten food in the United States ends up rotting in landfills, creating the single largest component of municipal solid waste. Saving just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year, at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure food supply.

Those statistics, explained Snyder, are why Rolling Harvest is a food rescue, with a mission to bring food that would otherwise go to waste to those who are hungry.

Still, there is more to improving nutrition and filling stomachs than simply providing healthy food, Snyder said. People need an opportunity to taste and learn about what’s being offered.

“People can get intimidated by vegetables,” she said. “When they’re given a chance to taste something, they’re 50 percent more likely to take it home.”

After finding kale, arugula and mustard greens in the trash at some food pantries, Snyder said, “we realized, it was time to change our model.” Today, there’s recipe and identification cards next to fruits and vegetables and food pantry volunteers have binders filled with helpful information about the items to share with shoppers.

Additionally, several nutrition educators have joined Rolling Harvest to work with recipients, explaining how a family can add to the nutritional value of a meal by tossing some chopped vegetables into a pasta or soup.

“We provide really simple recipes in Spanish and English,” said Edie Kwasnoski, a volunteer nutrition educator. “People like to share … they talk about what they tried, what they liked or didn’t like. It builds a sense of community around healthier eating.” And, she added, “it makes people feel less alone.”

Not only does Rolling Harvest rescue food and help feed those in need, it provides meaningful volunteer opportunities, said Mary Sherwood. Looking for a place where she could volunteer a few hours a week, she learned about Rolling Harvest. “I felt comfortable from day one,” said the 63-year-old Washington Crossing woman, who is retired from the New Jersey Department of Education.

“What hit me was how many people need food…it was an awakening.” And, Sherwood noted, “the generosity of our local farmers is amazing.”

The symbiosis within the hunger relief community can be striking. While the hungry and food insecure are the more obvious beneficiaries, so too are farmers and volunteers.

Penni Burnett understands this better than most. At 68, she lost her husband and “had no clue” what she was going to do. Then she moved into Moreland Towers in Hatboro and was introduced to Rolling Harvest and the abundance of fruits, vegetables and bread in the community room of the low-income housing development.

Confused at first, because she couldn’t find a place to weigh her bananas, apples and lettuce to determine the cost, Burnett said she was “overwhelmed to say the least” when told it was free. Her food bill has dropped 70 percent.

Now 74, Burnett is a faithful Rolling Harvest volunteer. Earlier this month, she helped harvest 240 pounds of turnips. She’s organized community dinners at her housing center with any leftover items after a donation from the food rescue. “Even someone who can’t do anything can fold a napkin and feel a part of it.”

Rolling Harvest, said the vibrant senior, has been nothing less than lifesaving.

“I thought I’d be in a rocking chair…I don’t even have a rocking chair,” laughed Burnett.

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