When Bill Zimmer began hobby farming a little over a decade ago and wound up with a surplus of potatoes, he donated them to the State College Food Bank. Little did he know that this one gesture of generosity would evolve into a communitywide effort called the Community Harvest Project that involves dozens upon dozens of volunteers and an allocation of land from Penn State, and supports more than 20 Centre County food banks and organizations.
After that initial donation, Zimmer remembers that the food bank was appreciative.
“They indicated that they would get occasional donations from individual gardeners, but that they really needed more fresh produce to supply all the people who go to the food bank,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m retired, I have time to do this, I’ll expand and grow more (produce) just for the State College Food Bank.’ Word got out and I was getting volunteers ... to help me garden.”
When he found that he was growing more than the State College Food Bank could use, he started donating to the Faith Center in Bellefonte.
The following year, some of Zimmer’s friends joined his efforts and began growing food strictly with donations in mind. With all those involved, Zimmer says they were averaging donations of approximately three tons of produce per year.
However, it was when the Penn State College of Ag Sciences became involved that the already impressive undertaking rose to an entirely new level. Following the donation of a ton of onions — the result of a Penn State student’s masters project — an ongoing relationship between Zimmer and the university formed. Leslie Pillen, associate director of farm and food systems at Penn State, has been instrumental in growing the relationship, Zimmer says, providing student interns to help with the planting and harvesting. Last year, an AmeriCorps intern facilitated a new partnership with Penn State’s farm managers, resulting in an allocation of Penn State land for the purpose of growing for the community.
“This year,” Zimmer said, “Penn State is growing the produce and quantities we requested they grow for us. ... The arrangement is, they will grow the acreage — and I’m hoping it’ll be upwards of two acres this year — with the understanding that (AmeriCorps intern) Mary Lemmon will organize volunteers, Penn State students and various groups from Penn State and groups from the community, to go out and harvest once or twice a week.”
From there, the produce is distributed by volunteers to the 21 organizations around Centre County. Zimmer’s goal is to double the amount of produce donated last year, for a total of 40,000 pounds and 1,000 banana boxes of produce.
Penn State is growing a large variety of produce — from apples and melons to cabbage and cauliflower — while Zimmer and some local farmers supplement this with items not being grown at Penn State. He calls these items the more labor-intensive produce, like carrots, lettuce and beets.
Multiple organizations have come out in full force in support of the project — now officially named the Community Harvest Project. State College Food Bank provides financial support to pay interns and purchase supplies, among other needs. The food bank is also acting as a distribution hub for several organizations in the area. The local Meals on Wheels branch offered use of its van for distribution, as well as an intern to assist with deliveries. Wegman’s donated the banana boxes required for sorting and delivering produce.
While it’s still a bit early to see the results, it’s only a matter of time before families begin reaping the benefits of what is truly a community effort — a good deed of mammoth proportions that began with a simple surplus of potatoes.
One of the best ways to assist with the Community Harvest Project is by making a donation to the State College Food Bank and indicating the money should be allocated to the Community Harvest Project. Donations can be made at the food bank’s website, www.scfoodbank.org.
The Community Harvest Project is also seeking to expand its network of growers and volunteers to assist growers. Local gardeners interested in pitching in should contact Zimmer at email@example.com.