When most people think about retirement, they imagine a life of  travel and leisure pursuits, but not Earl Knauss. At age 92, he leads the dynamic Rotary Club of Hamburg Farm to Family Program that from May to November 2023 provided 125,550 pounds of fresh vegetables (surpassing its 2022 total of 102,000 pounds) to thousands of individuals challenged by food insecurity in Western New York.
The operation distributes locally grown vegetables from three Eden, NY farms throughout the growing season to food pantries at non-profit organizations, churches and shelters in Hamburg, Buffalo and beyond. (See our condensed story published in the December issue of Rotary Magazine).
It all began with some funny-looking red peppers in 2007. Knauss was given three bushels of misshapen vegetables by a neighbor who had gotten five bushels from a farmer for free because they couldn’t sell them.  “These peppers were perfect except for their shape,” Knauss recalls with a shake of his head. “They could not be sold to the supermarkets, and I discovered that odd shaped, blemished and imperfect vegetables were dumped or destroyed.” He asked Bill Zittel of Amos Zittel & Sons Farms for permission
to take more peppers from a wagonful set to be destroyed and was allowed to fill 18-gallon totes that he
took to several pantries. The following year, Zittel had full totes ready for Knauss, and by the third year,
summer squash and eggplant were included. Knauss was also allowed to harvest lettuce and cabbage from
fields picked earlier by the farmer. Subsequently, the venture expanded both in the variety of vegetables
and in the number of farms providing produce when W.D. Henry & Sons and Henry W. Agle & Sons
farms joined the collaboration at Zittel’s behest, bringing winter squash and plum tomatoes. The three
farms are members of the Eden Valley Growers, Inc., a longtime farming cooperative. “The famers got
involved lock, stock and barrel,” Knauss recalls. “This has been great for them and for me. They have
treated me so well.”
Early on, Knauss donated vegetables with the help of a couple of friends and volunteers, but five years
ago, he asked the Rotary Club to take on his established distribution as one of its projects to ensure its
continuation. The membership embraced the venture, christening it Farm to Family. Knauss has been a
member of the club since 1975.
With Knauss as the team leader, about 10 Rotarians and five volunteers delivered vegetables each
morning, Monday through Saturday, serving about 3,000 families. Summer’s bounty brings lettuce and a
variety of peppers, cabbage, tomatoes and corn. When autumn arrives, offerings include brussels sprouts
and five varieties of winter squash. On a typical Farm to Family morning, a two-person team joins Knauss
at one of the farms and together they load the pickup truck with crates bursting with produce cleaned by
the farmer. The duos then proceed to scheduled deliveries. “They are picked one day and are in the hands
of those who are getting them the next day in most cases,” said Knauss.
Rotary District 7090 Assistant Gov. Diana Straube, who is also immediate past president of the Rotary
Club of Hamburg, has worked with Farm to Family for the past three years. “Earl Knauss is one of the
most generous and community-minded people I know,” Straube says. “He was already in his seventies
and retired by the time he began to devote a large portion of his day to distributing food to those in need.
As I have delivered produce, volunteers at the various food pantries have opened my eyes to the
overwhelming amount of food insecurity there is in this area. It warms my heart to be a small part of the
solution, and to see so many other volunteers helping people obtain something so essential as food.” She
credits Knauss for the planning and execution of the enormous operation. “Earl figures out how much
produce goes to each pantry each day.” Rotarian Jack Flint has been a part of the Farm to Family team for
six years, partnering with Straube for the past three, and agrees with her assessment. “Earl does a lot behind the scenes,” he says. Each Monday morning, they meet Knauss, load the truck and the pair heads off to their rounds to locations in the Town of Hamburg and the cities of Lackawanna and Buffalo. “I thought it was a monumental task that Earl had gotten himself into,” Flint says with a chuckle, recalling
his first impression of the vegetable distribution program. “Doing this has been very gratifying.” When
they arrive at the food pantries, grateful staff and volunteers greet them. “The people are so thankful that
we are doing this,” Flint says. “They thank us and Earl.”
The Rotary Club of Hamburg wholeheartedly supports Farm to Family and is proud of the program and it
is optimistic about its future. As its de facto CEO, Knauss records the amount and weight of produce each
site receives, providing recipients with the tally at season’s end. When the Rotary Club of Hamburg Farm
to Family truck pulls up to the food distribution centers, two individuals who are especially delighted to
see it are Kim Reynolds, director of Resurrection Food Pantry in Cheektowaga and Darlene “DeeDee”
Sery, coordinator of five Buffalo area pantries for Catholic Charities of Erie County.
The Resurrection Food Pantry in Cheektowaga is the largest food pantry in Western New York, serving
1,000 families per month, Kim Reynolds says. Farm to Family has brought produce to Resurrection for
four years. “Of those served, over 500 are senior citizens and 200 are veterans in crisis,” she says. The
fresh produce provided by Farm to Family augments the state and federal grant support. “It only covers so
much and only goes so far for nutritious dense foods. We spend money on extenders – peanut butter,
grains and canned vegetables,” Reynolds says. “Fresh vegetables are down on the list. Our clients rely on
Farm to Family to fill that gap. Fresh produce is much better,” she adds. “Without fail, there is always
enough produce for every client. Earl focuses on the number of people we serve, and no one goes without.
Every person that we serve is like a pebble in a pond. The program helps the farmers distribute the food
that serves thousands of families and that’s important, and the farmers can take a deduction.”
Sery oversees the year-round food distribution at pantries in Buffalo and Erie County and has been
thrilled to accept fresh produce from Farm to Family for 14 years. The donated vegetables help about
1,300 families per month through her division of Catholic Charities to stretch their food budgets and
prepare healthier meals. Farms to Families brings whatever is in season each week. Off season, families
shop for cheaper alternatives, Sery says. “When Farm to Family helps, they can get fresh tomatoes,
squash and corn, as much as they want, and they can get them every week. It really helps with the grocery
bill, for starters.” The children love the fresh vegetables, especially the sweet corn, she says. With the
abundance of produce such as peppers, families can eat them all summer, “and freeze them for
Thanksgiving.” The donations sometimes include eggplant. “A luxury,” according to Sery. “It can be
prepared with cheese and sauce and be a complete meal,” she says. “What Earl’s team is doing is making
sure the food they are eating is healthy into fall. Earl’s heart is so big. He never says stop. His heart is
wide open, making sure that people with food insecurity are served. You cannot put a price tag on that.”
Knauss is a humble man who is grateful that Farm to Family continues to flourish, addressing an urgent
need. “It’s really been something to see how much need is out there with food insecurity,” he says, his
voice rising in a tone of disbelief. “I raised my family and started volunteering along the way, but I had
no idea there were so many places where people are in such great need. Most food pantries don’t get
donations of fresh nutritious vegetables like this that families may not be able to afford.” Through his
nearly 50 years of Rotary, Knauss is most proud of Farm to Family for the immediate direct positive
impact it has on the families it serves.
Would you like to help support Farm to Family?