By Sabrina Workman
Full360 Reporter Sabrina Workman met with Eileen Albillar, of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, to discuss the group’s collaboration with DelVal and this year’s harvest. Below, Albillar shares a few words about the Bucks County nonprofit and her visit to Delaware Valley University.
Q: What is your name and what do you do?
A: I’m Eileen Albillar. I’m the volunteer and community connections manager for the Bucks County Opportunity Council. BCOC is an anti-poverty organization. We’re a nonprofit for Bucks County, and our mission is to reduce poverty and to promote economic self-sufficiency.
Q: How long have you been working with the opportunity council?
A: I’ve been with the opportunity council since 2010.
Q: So DelVal, and the Bucks County Oppurtunity Council have been together since 2013. Who was the first person to really connect these two organizations?
A: Back in 2013, the DelVal leadership and BCOC, along with United Way, decided to start some conversations around using the produce grown here locally to help support our local food pantries throughout Bucks County.
BCOC is the lead food agency for Bucks County, so we receive state, and federal food money, as well as private donations, and philanthropic donations, to support the food pantries throughout Bucks County, of which there are more than 70. Then we support them with food and access to food
Over the last few years, we’ve been picking up a lot of initiative to get healthy, nutritious produce into the pantries as well so that people who are low income, trying to stretch their dollar have access to fruits and vegetables in addition to dry goods and canned goods that they can get at the local pantry.
Now, even more than ever, fresh produce is very expensive, and it’s out of budget for a lot of people who are working and trying to make ends meet.
The biggest risk that one can take when they’re trying to make ends meet is buying produce at the grocery store because if it goes bad, it’s a waste of money. We want to ensure that everyone in our community has access to nutritious food whether they can afford it or not.
So we came together with DelVal to bring the labor through our volunteer force to help with picking and harvesting and planting and weeding over the years. From May thru October every year since 2013 and the university donates that food back to our food pantry system, and we distribute that to the food pantries through things like fresh connect, which is our mobile farmers market.
Q: How do you get the word out that you need volunteers, or that is locally grown, DelVal produce?
So the BCOC has been around since 1965, and we have a wonderful community of volunteers. Donors, students, community members, and nonprofit groups come together, and we work with corporate groups who bring their teams out to volunteer. People in the community who live locally and they want to take a couple of hours out of their day to be outside, be outdoors, meet other volunteers, and of course, get the fresh produce into the hands of the people who need it most.
Q: What is the process, how is DelVal connected?
A: We work with Matt Beekman, and he has been the lead over the past few years. He lets us know when and how many volunteers are needed in the fields to harvest. So he gives us instructions, and then I recruit volunteers who sign up online, and then they meet us in the parking lot. We meet with student workers and other folks from DelVal, and they provide the instruction. So what I love most about this project, too, is that no matter what someone’s skill level, they can come out and do good for the community.
We’ve had people who have never been on a farm before come out, and they love to learn about what’s happening and all the things that have to go into growing fresh produce and getting it into people’s hands and to grocery stores.
We’ve had people who are master gardeners and do this for a living, and they enjoy coming out, sharing their knowledge, and getting knowledge from the students. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and every time I come out, I learn something new about agriculture.
Q: How is the produce washed and sent out to the food pantry network?
A: We do the harvesting, and then they [the produce] go back with the student workers, and then we have a truck driver that comes out periodically, and he will load up the bin with all the produce that’s ready for distribution, he will take it back to our cooler to distribute to local food pantry volunteers. [The volunteers] Who take it back to different places around the county, or we take it to fresh connect, and we take it directly to people in need. We also use some of that produce to do senior bags because we do home delivery to seniors who are homebound, and now with the added produce through DelVal, we can do direct delivery of fresh produce as well.
Q: So what struggles and triumphs has the BCOC faced this year with this project?
A: So, we had to take a couple of years of hiatus from this project because of the pandemic and other factors. And we’re so glad to be back in the fields this year to get the produce. It’s a project that is loved by the community. Volunteers absolutely love to do this; they can bring their children, they can come out during the summer and teach their children about doing good for others as well as about how the fruits and vegetables that end up on their plate where they come from and all the work it takes to planting and growing and harvesting and making sure that it grows appropriately, taking care of pests, watering, all those things that and how environmental factors affect the growth of produce.
Q: Where do you want the partnership between DelVal and the BCOC to go?
We are so grateful for this partnership, and it has been a wonderful thing for the people that we serve as well as for our community and our organization. So we’re looking forward to continuing this partnership and continuing to grow the amount of produce that we can grow here locally and get into the hands of the people who need it.