Sandy Witman: Strengthening Reading’s Food Systems

Sandy Witman was sitting in her car in Reading’s downtown this past winter when a man walked up and knocked on her window. She rolled it down.

It turned out that the man recognized Sandy – they had gotten to know each other at the Penn Street Market, where she volunteered – and he thought maybe something was wrong. She had been kind to him during the market season and he wanted to check on her and make sure she was all right before he moved on. She inquired about how he was doing, did he have warm clothes for the winter, and he assured her he did, before they parted ways.

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“I sat in my car with tears in my eyes,” she said, “that he remembered me and wanted to make sure I was ok…You never know someone’s story, or what they have been through! I learned from my family to respect everyone.”

Sandy brings her relationship-first mentality and decades of experience in the food industry and business development to Reading and Berks County, helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses; mentoring the next generation of leaders; and giving of her time and expertise to strengthen the area’s food systems, from promoting businesses to increasing food access.

Sandy’s love of agricultural systems started early. She grew up in a family of famers and spent family vacations on their farms when she would ride with her uncles on their food trucks selling produce and meat, “I remember my dad telling me, ‘You already love this stuff!’”

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Later she moved with her husband, a Marine, to California where set about getting to know the members of her community. The present ease with which she strikes up conversation with just about anybody came with practice, “Everyone should move to a different place for a while. You learn how to interact with different people,” she said.

She also reflects that she takes after her dad, who valued getting to know people and talked with just about anybody, “I’d be with him chatting with everyone. We’d go the hardware store and it’d take us two hours because we’d be chatting.”

At first, Sandy wasn’t sure what she’d do with her time in California, “[My husband] said to me, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ because he knew I was restless!” She saw an ad for a flower shop delivery position, and showed up at the shop, “The owner asked me, of course, if I knew the area. I told him I did…or at least, I’d figure it out!”

She quickly made friends with the local police and fire fighters, who often gave her a hand when she did inevitably get lost on deliveries. And, she opened her home to the local military personnel who missed their far-away families, often hosting them for dinner and holidays.

And, that somewhat-spontaneous position at the flower shop soon blossomed into a valuable business-education for Sandy, “Talk about the best mentor you could ask for! I learned so much about business there.”

Today, Sandy pays that mentorship forward, encouraging and giving both technical advice and bits of practical wisdom to Reading and Berks’ next generation of leaders. She reminds young professionals especially to always remember that it’s sometimes the least likely person who can teach them something. Despite her long and successful career, she admits, “I don’t know everything. Nobody does. Everyone can learn something from everyone else, including me!”

Eventually, Sandy moved back from California to Berks County and continued her career in various iterations within the food industry, including opening up a catering company and café on Penn Street, “Simply Scrumptious (she recently ran into a customer who specifically remembered her lemon squares, nearly twenty-five years later),” and working in business development at Sysco, US Foods and other companies.

Today she consults small business owners, connecting them with resources to grow their businesses, “I love the entrepreneurs and anything I can do to help them grow…It’s fun to watch things happen because people connect.” She remembers, and continues to teach others, that the biggest part of any business is connecting with people, “It’s all about how you make people feel in that moment.”

And she continues to live by her own advice. She recently served on the Home Builders Association’s Restoring Hope Foundation’s inaugural Cupcake Wars committee, working to recruit professional and amateur bakers. After the event, she personally made sure that the leftover cupcakes went to the hotel event staff, “…they worked hard all day to make the event come together…It’s all about the relationships!”

Sandy donates her time and expertise in many ways, working to strengthen Berks’ agricultural system, including promoting its small businesses, and increasing food access and security. She volunteered with Penn Street Market for the past couple of seasons, leading efforts to expand the amount of participating vendors and working to increase connection between local farmers and residents.

City Councilwoman Lucine Sihelnik, former Penn Street Market Manager and current BARN president, has worked closely with Sandy over the past few years, “The most amazing thing about Sandy is that although she’s small in stature, she’s tremendous in the amount of time, energy and love she gives to those around her in need. I’ve learned that actions can speak louder than words from Sandy, who never stands idly by and watches other work. And she knows everyone. People will stop what they are doing on Penn Street to get one of her infamous hugs because they love seeing her every week at the farmers market.”

Sandy also serves on the Executive Committee of Berks Agricultural Resource Network (BARN), leading Bountiful Berks, a branding program developed to identify local products. She played a crucial role in the Bountiful Berks Farm Stand pilot in the Reading School District [see article to learn more] serving as a broker between local vendors and the program that gives students fresh food.

“Working with Sandy is a true pleasure. She is a sage when it comes to food, food service and their resources in Berks County. The depth and breadth of her knowledge are amazing. It was an honor for me and Tropical Bakery to be chosen as one of the suppliers for Bountiful Berks,” said Bountiful Berks vendor Tanya Melendez, of Tropical Bakery.

Recently, Sandy even served as a judge for the National Agriculture Day student essay contest. She recalled spreading out the essays across her living room floor, “I learned a lot about the spotted lanternfly and the damage they are causing to our local environment and businesses from the local school children,” Sandy said. Afterwards, she got to present the awards to the contest winners.

Sandy’s latest effort is recruiting vendors for BARN’s big annual fundraising event which will, of course, feature food from local farms. And whatever her next big project is after that, she’ll continue connecting people with each other and with resources, strengthening Reading’s food systems, and reminding all of us to keep respecting and getting to know one another.

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Dani Motze
Dani Motze
Dani Motze lives in, writes about and rides her bike around Reading, PA. She tells the stories of the people who are rewriting the city’s narrative -- Reading's "unsung heroes."
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