A 6-year-old girl from Downingtown struggled to avoid making sauce as she balanced a box containing the fruits of her labors: dozens of gleaming, red tomatoes.

Minutes later, a 4-year-old boy, also from Downingtown, wrestled with a cornstalk before triumphantly snapping off a resistant ear.

The children were part of a picking posse of about 30 who descended on a field in Westtown Township. Their goal: Provide fresh produce via the Chester County Food Bank to a population that belies the county's well-publicized affluence.

This year, Forbes magazine ranked Chester County, with a per-capita income of nearly $85,000, as the 24th-wealthiest county in the nation. Forbes.com touted it as one of America's best places to raise a family. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranked it Pennsylvania's healthiest county.

Such accolades, however, don't benefit a growing population of disadvantaged.

"It's not something people here think about . . . but the needs are great and have increased during the recession," said Robert D. McNeil, a real estate magnate and board chairman of the Chester County Food Bank.

The organization was established in March 2009 when the CARES Food Network, the former distribution clearinghouse for 27 food cupboards and 38 meal sites in the county, faced bankruptcy.

Reports on poverty by nonprofit groups show that making ends meet is more expensive in Chester County than in most U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. A Chester County adult with one preschooler, for example, needs $51,853 a year to meet basic needs, the most of any county in Pennsylvania.

McNeil, a member of the philanthropic clan whose ancestors founded McNeil Laboratories, finds such statistics unacceptable. And he has some high-powered allies on his 16-member board who share his passion to curb poverty.

In less than two years, the group has become an independent nonprofit, bought a warehouse, added commercial equipment such as flash-freezers and dehydrators to extend the growing season, and expanded a gleaning program that relies on volunteers to pick produce.

"It's just astounding what they have accomplished, and I believe everyone who's been on the board has contributed," Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone said.

Said Ruth E. Kranz-Carl, who heads the county Human Services Department and served as a liaison during the food bank's start-up: "The Chester County Food Bank is a success story due to the dedicated team of individuals who came together when the need became apparent."

As needs rose by more than 40 percent, the board responded with increased donations, she said.

The board includes Betty Moran, owner of the 260-acre Brushwood Stable in Malvern, which produced Creme Fraiche, winner of the 1985 Belmont Stakes; retired NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who has added a 30-by-50-foot food bank garden at his home; James E. McErlane, a founding partner of Lamb McErlane, one of Chester County's top law firms; and Margarita Queralt Mirkil, executive director of La Comunidad Hispana.

McNeil praised the board members for getting the food bank up and running, calling Moran "the best fund-raiser in Chester County."

This month, the organization moved into a warehouse on Route 322 northwest of Downingtown. That is where Larry Welsch, who ran the gleaning program for Chester County CARES and who now heads the food bank, meets with the board once a month, McNeil said, adding that he and Welsch communicate daily.

McNeil, who runs Penguin Industries Inc., a real estate company, said he knew he had found a kindred spirit when he had an early-morning epiphany Jan. 7 about the food bank's mission. At 5:42 a.m., he sent a mass e-mail that stressed the importance of not just alleviating hunger but also attacking its causes.

Welsch responded enthusiastically at 6 a.m., McNeil said, calling him "the superman" of the food bank.

"I've dealt with a lot of executive directors in my day, and I would put him up against the very best," McNeil said, adding that both were fortunate their wives tolerated their long hours.

Together, the two talk excitedly about providing more nutritious food to cupboards to improve recipients' health and their ability to stay employed. One of many goals is to upgrade the offerings to the agencies that distribute the food and to avoid competing with them.

In that regard, Welsch said, donors are encouraged to deal directly with cupboards for their food drives.

"There's no reason for the food to pass through here," he said.

The exceptions are drives conducted by corporations such as Vanguard, QVC, and Wegmans that require deliveries to multiple locations.

"They're so large that they have to come through here," Welsch said.

McNeil said the food bank was working on a program to add venison to its rations - "higher protein and lower fat than beef" - and was cautiously expanding produce production.

The food bank, which provided sustenance to more than 110,000 of Chester County's nearly 499,000 residents in 2009, is hardly among the state's largest. Many food banks, such as those in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, serve multiple counties.

But when it comes to farming, Sheila Christopher, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Regional Food Banks, describes Chester County's effort as the "premier operation."

The gleaning program, started in 1996 by State Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), is based on the biblical description of scavenging for food left in harvested fields. Today, the county has 41 farmers who grow crops specifically for the food bank or make their leftovers available.

In addition, a "raised-bed" program initiated by local churches has flourished, McNeil said, adding that last year's 25 beds increased to 94 this year. Welsch said 25 more are scheduled to be built, many at schools, which would have the benefit of involving a younger generation.

Welsch said he did not want to be in a position where he didn't have the manpower to respond when a farmer called and said he had a field available for gleaning.

With Elmer Duckinfield heading the volunteers, that is unlikely, Welsch said.

Duckinfield schedules between 600 and 700 of the food bank's 2,600 volunteers for the gleaning program at its myriad locations.

On a Thursday evening, the venue was a field at Westtown School planted by Peter Flynn, a board member known regionally as owner of Pete's Produce Farm.

Before any of the volunteers arrived, Duckinfield, a retired engineer who also volunteers at a West Chester homeless shelter, used a weed trimmer to provide easier access to the field and to reduce the tick population.

Once the team arrived, ranging in age from 4 to older than 40, he made sure everyone had a volunteer gleaner T-shirt, sprayed insect repellent to guard against Lyme disease, distributed collection boxes, and scurried to ensure all the volunteers had what they needed.

Harvesting sessions are limited to about an hour and a half.

"The kids lose interest after that," he said, chuckling as an ear of corn flew into the air, signaling the presence of youngsters in the thicket of cornstalks.

Duckinfield, who also transports the produce to the warehouse, said his job was facilitated by group coordinators like Lori Tyson, a regular who brought her husband and three boys to pick corn and tomatoes.

Tyson, of Media, said gleaning was not a tough sell. Many of the people she has encouraged to attend have returned.

"It's hard to find service opportunities for the whole family that are enjoyable, and so obviously productive," she said. "It's quite fun picking, and the kids really have a great time."

Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-696-3021 or kbrady@phillynews.com.