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Food Helpers Goes Green with Solar Array

Greater Washington County Food Bank has been re-imagining the food banking model over the last five years. In addition to distributing millions of pounds of food each year, the Food Bank has attempted not only to feed, but to educate and assist their clients from being food-insecure to self-sustaining. Ending food insecurity in Washington County goes beyond just distributing food. All that effort requires a lot of electricity, which is now offset by a 544-panel, 209kW solar array, located on The FARM at Greater Washington County Food Bank. The solar array was officially connected, and renewable energy production began on January 12th, 2021.

When they moved into their current warehouse, the facility enabled the Food Bank to open Healthy Habits Training Center, equipped with an educational center and teaching kitchens for cooking classes. Shortly after, Country Thrift Market opened, offering gently used clothing, home goods, and various items for sale at a fraction of the retail cost. The final program, The FARM, has utilized the 22-acre plot to offer educational opportunities for growing one’s own food through raised garden beds, hydroponic growing units, a greenhouse. In addition, they are planting everything from apple and pear trees to tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, blackberries, and more.

All this innovation is not just to meet the food need, but to address the underlying attribute that leads to food insecurity. To do so, it requires significant amounts of energy. “Our goal is to offset the cost of our electric utility, while being able to educate the community on eco-friendly practices and becoming self-sustaining. Our goal as an organization is much like the goal we have for our clients – to grow and become self-sustaining and create opportunities to better ourselves,” said Connie Burd, Executive Director.

Enter Ed Johnstonbaugh, a Penn State Extension Renewable Energy Educator, who became instrumental in bringing Greater Washington County Food Bank to the forefront of renewable energy for farms in Washington County. Through his leadership and guidance, the food bank has the potential of eliminate its annual electric bill and reallocate those funds towards serving its mission.

The solar array was funded by in part by Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Neighborhood Assistance Program, with support from West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund, Northwest Bank, UPMC Health Plan, and Washington Financial Bank. This project will offset roughly $25,000 of annual electric costs, allowing those former utility funds to be designed towards the operations of Greater Washington County Food Bank. Excess energy production will be sold as solar-renewable energy credits, acting as a potential revenue source for the organization.

The Agricultural Innovations Manager, Grant Johnson, said, “The installation of ‘solar farms’ is becoming a more prevalent opportunity for farms in PA to make use of their underutilized land. This system can serve as an example for other farms and small businesses on how to implement a solar project of this scale.”

With such a large utility being offset by the solar array, Greater Washington County Food Bank intends to designate the savings towards its programs addressing food insecurity in Washington County.

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