The Greater Washington County Food Bank is going green, and saving thousands of dollars in energy costs that will go toward helping food insecure residents in Washington County.

The food bank recently broke ground for the installation of a 200kW solar array, located on its 22-acre site in Centerville Borough.

Once the solar panels are up and running, the system will generate about $30,000 in savings each year, and nearly offset the Food Bank’s annual energy costs and the electric needs of the farm’s five hydroponic and aquaponics units.

“Reducing our energy bills enables us to use those funds to support our programs and better serve families in need in our community,” said GWCFB executive director Connie Burd. “We’re grateful for all the help.

“The solar system also fits into the Food Bank’s philosophy of environmental sustainability and its mission to be a leader in innovative and sustainable business practices in the fight against hunger.”

The solar array is the equivalent of planting 7,500 trees each year, or taking 35 cars off the road annually.

The Food Bank also will host school districts, universities, community groups and others to raise awareness about solar power’s use in combating greenhouse gas emissions and its role in reducing dependence on fossil fuels. And, it will provide learning sessions on real-life application of solar energy as a renewable green energy source.

The solar array is being installed by Groundhog Solar of Altoona, and is expected to be completed by the end of September.

The solar panels will sit on nearly half an acre of land.

“It’s a very large-scale project, and it’s something we’ve been working toward for a while, so we’re really happy it’s underway,” said Morgan Livingston, farm manager at GWCFB.

The approximately $290,000 project received funding from the Neighborhood Assistance through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, UPMC, Northwest Bank, Washington Financial, and West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund.

“We’re grateful for the support of these organizations, whose efforts allow us to continue to fight hunger in Washington County,” said Burd.

The Food Bank has served the residents of Washington County for 35 years. In 2015, it moved to its current location, a former grocery store and produce distribution center.

Right now, the Food Bank distributes emergency food supplies through Truck to Trunk distribution sites – before COVID-19, distributions were made through 48 pantries across the county.

It also supports several after-school food programs that help ensure food insecure students have something to eat over the weekend.

Additionally, the Food Bank operates Healthy Habits Training Center, an on-site and on-line school that provides cooking classes and other training to help people eat healthier, and the Country Thrift Market, a store that sells clothes and other items.

It also operates The Farm, which includes the hydroponic and aquaponics units. The Farm grows fruits and vegetables for the the food insecure population it serves, and hosts an outdoors farmers market Tuesdays.

Currently, more than 25,000 people in Washington County are food insecure. More than 30% of those are children under 18, and more than 20% are senior citizens.

Ed Johnstonbaugh, a renewable energy educator with Penn State Extension, has worked with the Food Bank for about two years to determine the location and scale of the system, and options for securing funding.

During that time, the Food Bank used a West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund grant to perform an energy audit and to implement energy efficiency upgrades. The upgrades and the solar array will result in energy credits that could provide some long-term income.

The solar array should prove especially beneficial amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Livingston said.

“We’re dealing with a lot of economic uncertainty across the country, including here, because of COVID, and in those times, nonprofit organizations see changes in the levels of giving and fundraising,” said Livingston. “We still have a lot of corporations and individuals supporting us, but we’re seeing a decline. It’s important to reduce our operational expenses when we’re going through times like this.”

The Greater Washington County Food Bank provides volunteer opportunities, ranging from packing boxes, working on The Farm, hosting educational seminars on various topics, and organizing merchandise at The Country Thrift Market. For information, visit www.gwcfb.org.

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