PHILADELPHIA — Regional food bank Philabundance has added coolers and is running a new packing line that expands its ability to distribute more fresh produce to area needy.

Fresh produce fuels Philadelphia food relief agency

Doug Ohlemeier

A worker inspects pineapple at Philabundance, a Philadelphia food relief agency that focuses on fresh produce. The regional food bank has added coolers and is running a new packing line.

The expansion gave the food bank that focuses on fresh produce more square footage to better handle the volatility that accompanies perishable products, said Bill Clark, president and executive director.

Since 2007, Philabundance has increased its investment in handling fresh foods.

Philabundance nearly tripled its refrigeration capacity from 7,000 square feet to 19,000 square feet in the new cooling system inside an adjacent warehouse renovated and opened earlier in the year.

To more efficiently repack the produce it receives from the Delaware Valley region, Philabundance relocated its volunteer operation from north Philadelphia to its headquarters across the street from the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market.

The packing line allows volunteers to break bulk produce into the more convenient 30- and 40-pound cartons that Philabundance transports to area food distribution centers.

As fresh produce represents 70% of Philabundance’s food donations, the product shortages that hit Florida and Chile this past winter made for a scary situation for the food bank, Clark said.

The upgrades also came at a time when food banks are receiving fewer dry grocery donations.

The Florida freeze and Chilean earthquake caused nearly two months of product shortages in February and March.

Not having dry product or other groceries to fall back on, Clark said the organization had to purchase fresh produce to distribute to the needy its serves.

With the abundant donations it normally receives, buying produce was something Philabundance rarely has to do, he said.

Clark said the improvements added space to store more “hard produce” such as apples, onions and potatoes and gave the organization more buffer to handle the perishable items.

“A lot of people wondered whether we should expand during the recession and financial crisis,” he said. “It was a big swallow for us but frankly, that’s our mission. Philabundance has never shied away from being aggressive in the face of hunger. We are increasing the capacity of our throughput at a time when the community is still feeling economic problems.”

Clark said waiting until the end of the recession would have been too late.

Many poor people had to eat a lot of potatoes for a few weeks until distributors and importers resumed their normal produce contributions.

Mark Levin, co-owner of M. Levin & Co Inc., said Philabundance provides a worthy service.

“They do a great job distributing fruits and vegetables and other food to the homeless and needy,” he said. “I’m surprised there aren’t more organizations like that, but Philabundance fills a niche in our area.”

Though no one likes to give away product, Levin said Philabundance people immediately visit his operation when the distributor has product he can’t sell.

Levin, whose headquarters building is across the street from Philabundance’s operations, said he often sees up to 40 vans and medium-sized trucks waiting to get into Philabundance so they can distribute food to hungry people.

“Their efforts should be commended,” Levin said.

Many distributors regularly contribute.

“We give produce we can’t sell here to them every week,” said Todd Penza, salesman for Pinto Bros. Inc. “They are selective in what they take and don’t take trash. They have to be able to use it. They are an important organization. People who can’t afford fresh produce need a source for it.”

Philabundance distributes goods to food banks throughout the East Coast, including New York and its Long Island and Staten Island boroughs, Pittsburgh, Virginia and South Carolina.