Friday, February 16, 2001

Food banks cash in on surplus of potatoes

Idaho farmers donate 24 million as prices plunge

By Philip Brasher
The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — Idaho's potato crop was so big last fall that growers are lucky to get a penny a pound for the spuds, far less than it cost to grow them, and many are being left in fields to rot.

        But now, at the suggestion of their wives, the farmers are donating to food banks across the country 15 million pounds of russet potatoes. That's about 24 million individual potatoes, or 360 truckloads.

        “It's a neat thing watching it all unfold,” said one of the women, Darla Hoff of Idaho Falls.

        “That's just a sad thing to see these gorgeous potatoes that people could be eating spread out on the field. That breaks your heart.”

        The giveaway started small, with donations locally to a women's shelter, the Salvation Army and other places, Ms. Hoff said. Then a regional food bank put the farmers in touch with America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based network of 200 food banks and food-rescue programs nationwide.

        It is unlikely to have much of an effect on potato prices, but it will be the single largest donation of food ever to America's Second Harvest. In its last fiscal year, Second Harvest distributed 36 million pounds of fresh produce.

        Second Harvest is raising money to cover the shipping costs — about $2,500 a truck. Donations from private companies have paid shipping for 80 truckloads, as well as some of the bagging costs.

        “For the growers to put this amount of food into the system is terrific,” said Bill Hoover, who runs a Fort Wayne, Ind., food bank that got its first truckload of potatoes this week. By Thursday, half already had been given away.

        The first five truckloads of spuds left Idaho Feb. 6. Among destinations so far: Albuquerque, N.M.; Phoenix; Fort Wayne; and Fort Worth, Texas. The food banks are giving the potatoes to soup kitchens, food pantries, women's shelters and other local feeding programs.

        Nationwide last fall, farmers harvested 47 billion pounds of potatoes, a 9 percent increase from 1999, according to USDA. In Idaho, which dominates the industry, production was up 14 percent.

        Potatoes cost about 5 cents a pound to grow.


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