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Growing in numbers: Local farmers join coalition to address Lehigh Valley hunger

Scholl brothers.jpg
Scholl Orchards
Jake, left, and Ben Scholl of Scholl Orchards in Bethlehem are among 10 farm owners who joined a coalition to fight hunger in the Greater Lehigh Valley.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Ben Scholl put it bluntly.

“There are a lot of people who are starving out there,” said Scholl, who co-owns Scholl Orchards in Bethlehem. “That’s why we’re involved.”

Scholl is among 10 farm owners throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley who have joined the Lehigh Valley Food System Coalition to develop a sustainable food infrastructure for organizations in the region.

The mission: Combat food insecurity throughout the Lehigh Valley. According to the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, 1 in 10 people locally are food insecure.

“This is about about building a sustainable food system in the Lehigh Valley."
Eric J. Ruth, chief executive officer and co-founder, Kellyn Foundation

In the program, representatives of organizations such as Meals on Wheels of the Greater Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem Food Co-Op and Second Harvest Food Bank will contact participating farmers about what balanced, nutritious food and in what quantities they pledge to buy at a wholesale price.

While some farms will increase crop production to accommodate the requests, others, such as Scholl Orchards, will meet the needs of the entities because they annually overproduce.

“This is about building a sustainable food system in the Lehigh Valley,” said Eric J. Ruth, chief executive officer and co-founder of Kellyn Foundation, a nonprofit based in Tatamy that addresses food access and hunger in the Lehigh Valley.

“We have a lot of farms, but not as many as we used to have here. Most farmers are not specifically large enough to wholesale to institutions of any size.

“But local institutions and local farmers have agreed to get started and find a way to meet the supply and demand that is good for the farmer and also the institutions.

"This is planting the seed to build on that. It could take a generation before it gets to where it needs to be.”

'Connect local growers to institutions'

Participating farms are Blackbird Farms in Emmaus, Crooked Row Farm in Orefield; Josie Porter Farm in Stroudsburg, Monroe County; Primordia Farms in Lenhartsville, Berks County; Scholl Orchards in Bethlehem; The Seed Farm in Emmaus; Taproot Farm in Shoemakersville, Berks County; Terra Fauna Farm in Northampton; Twin Maple Farm in Bath, and Willow Haven Farm in New Tripoli.

The balance of the local organizations that will contract with the farms are Kellyn Foundation, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Bethlehem Area School District, Penn State Extension and Rodale Institute.

"This is a wonderful way to connect local growers to institutions and keep food grown locally in the Lehigh Valley."
Steven Hunsicker of Twin Maple Farm

The partners in the local food system initiative pledge to:

  • Transform from a current focus on hunger to a broader focus of individual health for all
  • Develop a fair and equitable process with our local farmers to expand their wholesale production, matching supply and planned demand.
  • Identify and share entrepreneurial opportunities that will be needed to build the local system
  • Include and embrace additional partners
  • Maintain a transparent and open strategy throughout the process

"This is a wonderful way to connect local growers to institutions and keep food grown locally in the Lehigh Valley," Steven Hunsicker of Twin Maple Farm said.

Lehigh Valley has done its part

The coalition hopes to eventually have as many as 25 local farms in the group, Ruth said.

“Everybody is excited about the concept."
Eric J. Ruth, chief executive officer and co-founder of Kellyn Foundation

“Everybody is excited about the concept,” Ruth said. “This process started in November when we contacted the farmers. The farmers came back and told us what they’re growing. the institutions told the farmers what they could use.”

Agricultural land for crops, pastures, orchards, tree farms and vineyards covers 22% of the Lehigh Valley’s 726 square miles.

According to data from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission website, the greatest challenge facing the local food economy is the loss of farmland, but farmers and municipalities have worked hard to prevent that.

Pennsylvania leads the nation with more than 530,000 acres of preserved farmland as of July 1, 2020, and the Lehigh Valley has done its part, with 554 farms preserved, totaling almost 42,000 acres.

Lehigh and Northampton counties have partnership programs that allow municipal funding to be added to county funding, making them eligible to receive more funding from Pennsylvania’s Farmland Preservation Program.