Farmers Play New Role to Solve Rural Hunger

  • Residents of Somerset County fill up laundry baskets of food provided by a travelling food pantry. Photo: Kara Holsopple

August 7, 2015

In a parking lot, a line of people carrying laundry baskets and empty shopping bags curls around a brick church building in rural Somerset County, southeast of Pittsburgh. This is farm country. But a lot of people here don’t have access to fresh produce.

People haven’t driven here to go to church. Today, the parking lot is doubling as a drop-off site for a food bank. Joetta Shumaker has placed her laundry basket on a shopping cart, and weaves her way through rows of folding tables. At one, she picks up boxes of mac and cheese; at the next, cucumbers. She pushes back her long, gray braids, as a volunteer puts a bag of oranges into the basket. She’s also making sure she stocks up on two of her favorites: peppers and cabbage.

“I love stuffed cabbage and I love stuffed peppers,” Shumaker says, laughing.

Shumaker has medical issues. She’s also helping raise her young grandson, who lives with her. The family has some money coming in, but it’s not enough to cover the healthy food they need.

“I have come ever since they started,” she says. “It really helps out a lot.”

Reaching people like Shumaker, who live in rural areas, can be a big challenge for food pantries. Food deserts in urban areas have been making news for years. But a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables is common outside the city too. A few years ago, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank partnered with Somerset County Mobile Food Bank to get food all the way out here—more than 60 miles from the city.

“There are hardworking men and women here in this line that think, OK, this may be my only shot at having fresh produce,” Shumaker says.

Once everyone in line picks up groceries, the mobile food pantry packs up and heads to the next tiny town. Over the next three days, it will make ten stops around Somerset County.

The back of the Somerset County Mobile Food Bank truck. Photo: Kara Holsopple

The back of the Somerset County Mobile Food Bank truck. Photo: Kara Holsopple

This mobile food pantry is the brainchild of Reverend Barry Ritenour. Pastor Barry, as everyone calls him, spends a lot of time in his car, following the mobile food pantry from site to site. He wants to make sure things go smoothly. When money’s tight, Walmart and other stores are just too far away for some.

“They’ve got 20 miles to drive to go grocery shopping,” Ritenour says. “It’s not cost-effective for them, so they don’t go.”

Instead, people rely on dollar stores or convenience marts, rather than make the drive into the town of Somerset where there are more options for affordable produce. Ritenour says his group had to decide if it wanted bring the people into Somerset to go shopping, or bring the food directly to the people.

They decided on the latter, and started the mobile food pantry. But because it takes a few days for the pantry to reach all of the communities it serves, keeping the food fresh over the course of a few days is one of the bigger challenges.

That’s where farmer Ken Soldano of Laurel Vista Farms comes in.

Inside his farm’s warehouse cooler, Soldano stores apples, oranges, potatoes, and cabbage. This isn’t all food he and his family have grown; this stash belongs to the mobile food pantry. For a few days each month, Soldano becomes the middleman that connects the Pittsburgh Food Bank and Somerset County’s traveling pantry.

“It started little, but it got pretty big,” Soldano says, laughing. On one recent trip, the truck from Pittsburgh brought nearly 50 pallets of food. With that kind of load, the mobile food pantry reaches 1,400 families now. But the need in this area is even greater. The program is in the early stages of expanding into neighboring Cambria County.

The Pittsburgh Food Bank knows that trucking all that food from the city isn’t an ideal system. Plans are in the works to round up as much locally grown produce as they can store and distribute it directly to people in Somerset and surrounding counties. They also want to complete the circle—unloading the Pittsburgh Food Bank truck at the farm, and sending it back to the city full of Somerset-grown veggies.

The whole project has been a lot of unexpected work for Soldano. But he says it makes him feel good to help his neighbors.

“I know when I grew up, it was pretty tough,” he says. “You know, you would appreciate something like this.”

The Pittsburgh Food Bank hopes farmers in other counties will feel the same. The area they serve needs 59 million additional meals a year—more than three times what they’re providing now. And they’re looking to farm country to play a bigger role in solving the region’s hunger problems. Not just by growing food, but by finding new uses for farms as distribution hubs closer to food-insecure families, so people will have what they need for those stuffed peppers.