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Philadelphia Zoo Partners with Variety to Grow Fresh Produce for Hundreds of Animals

While Philadelphia Zoo’s animals represent species from all over the world, their meals are becoming increasingly local.

Barbara Toddes, the Zoo’s Director of Animal Nutrition, has developed the feeding program to strongly focus on seasonally appropriate variation, sustainability, and local procurement.

Following years of dedicated effort, more than 40% of food used in animal diets now comes from suppliers within 100 miles of the Zoo. For the last seven years, one of these suppliers has been a very special nonprofit organization in Montgomery County: Variety – the Children’s Charity of the Delaware Valley.

In 1949, Variety opened its doors to serve boys recovering from polio in summer camp. Since then, its mission has evolved to serve children and young adults with disabilities through social, educational, and vocational programs that nurture independence and self-confidence, and prepare them for life. Among the activities offered to after school and summer vocational participants is a Greenhouse program, which instructs the youth on how to plant seeds, raise crops, and harvest fruits and vegetables. The fruits of their efforts are then sold at farm stands and in the community.

In 2015, Toddes lived near the camp and frequented the organization’s summer farm stand. Seeing an opportunity to build a relationship between the camp and the Zoo, she approached Variety to discuss partnering with them to provide fresh produce for animal diets, kick starting a partnership that has proven to be mutually beneficial.

“This partnership allows them to provide a great experience for their campers and grow a variety of crops,” says Toddes. “It is important that the food our animals eat is wholesome, to ensure they’re receiving appropriate nutrients to maintain their well-being. Variety consistently meets this standard, and we couldn’t be more thankful for this partnership.”

In the past seven years, the Zoo has bought 10.7 tons of produce from the Variety Club, which has fed hundreds of animals large and small at the Zoo. From our giraffe herd to our Eurasian harvest mouse colony, animals across the zoo have benefitted from the Variety Club’s farm.

With 1,700 animals and wide-ranging dietary needs across the collection, Variety’s gardens offer an important seasonal variety to zoological diets, including:


  • Black raspberries
  • Bell peppers
  • Luffa squash
  • Pattypan squash
  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Zuchini
  • Variety of green leafy veggies (kale, beet tops, swiss chard)

Browse (vegetation, such as twigs and young shoots):

  • Forsythia
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Corkscrew willow
  • Purslane
  • Zinnia flowers
  • Marigold flowers

The partnership with Variety continues to grow. This year, for the first time, the Zoo partnered with their Farm to Table 21+ vocational training program, whose team helped process browse and deliver pumpkins to animal areas for our Boo at the Zoo festivities.

“In the coming year, Variety is adding a forsythia maze on their campus and is seeking support to help fund the project,” per Toddes. “This maze, like our previous projects, will benefit both Variety and the Zoo. The physical maze will provide a new activity for campers, while it’s trimming and upkeep will provide the Zoo with a source of additional fresh browse for our giraffe. Variety has also reached out to the Montgomery County community including Methacton High School and Delaware Valley University, possibly further growing relationships and eventual bridges to the Zoo.”

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Support Our Animal Nutrition Program

In pursuit of biologically appropriate and nutritionally complete animal diets, the Philadelphia Zoo Animal Nutrition team buys and distributes nearly 300 different food items, including meat, fish, insects, and produce that cost upward of $500,000 each year. Your gift supports programming like our partnership with Variety.