The bad news is that Prince Edward Island potato farmers are currently facing a federal government-imposed ban on seed potato shipments to the U.S. because of the discovery of potato wart in some of the province’s crop.
The good news is that PEI farmers are shipping out millions of pounds of edible potatoes - before they perish - with the help of Toronto-based Second Harvest to food banks in communities across Canada, including Sault Ste. Marie.
About 18 million pounds of potatoes - or approximately 300 truckloads - are being sent out.
That represents approximately six per cent of the total loss of seed potatoes PEI farmers cannot export.
“We’ve already received one transport (carrying potatoes),” said Carson Beauregard, United Way Harvest Algoma food production and operations manager.
“Each palette was about 2,000 pounds and we received 26 palettes (for an approximate total of 52,000 pounds of potatoes for people of the Sault in need of food).”
Harvest Algoma serves about 50 agencies, each of which have access to Harvest Algoma’s services every week.
The Salvation Army and St. Vincent Place food banks are two agencies that have availed themselves of the potato shipment, Beauregard said.
“Giving away free potatoes is fantastic for people who need food and we are very thankful.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) first discovered potato wart on two PEI farms in October.
The federal government stopped shipments of PEI seed potatoes to the U.S. in November after America voiced its concern over the discovery of potato wart in the province.
The Emergency Food Security Fund gave $3.5 million to Second Harvest to purchase surplus PEI potatoes from growers, that funding covered by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Second Harvest purchased $2 million worth of potatoes - 12 million pounds of them - the balance of $1.5 million used to cover transportation costs to food banks across Canada.
Second Harvest is Canada’s largest food recovery organization.
It connects businesses with surplus food to local charities and non-profits which distribute food to food banks, shelters, after school programs and newcomer residences.
“It’s an unfortunate situation to have occurred (for PEI’s potato farmers) but for us we’re happy that we’re able to prevent that food from going to waste and also able to get it to organizations that are serving communities,” said Madison Maguire, Second Harvest head of operations.
“We have a fleet of trucks for direct delivery of food in the Toronto area from our new warehouse in Etobicoke but we also will move some of those large donations (of PEI potatoes, for example) out to different hubs in other places, and we do that in different provinces.”
“We knew there would be a surplus of food and we wanted to work to be able to find homes for that (upon learning of PEI’s potato woes in November),” Maguire said.
Second Harvest has so far moved two million pounds of PEI spuds to food banks across Canada, including 720,000 in Ontario and 60,000 pounds to United Way Harvest Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Maguire said.
At least one more shipment of potatoes will be coming to the Sault.
“We’re planning to be working on this until the end of March. The program is still very much ongoing,” Maguire said.
“It’s been pretty devastating for everyone,” said Mark Phillips, PEI Potato Board marketing specialist.
“The wording used by the federal government makes it sound like there’s a lot of wart around here but there really isn’t. There’s a few small isolated areas and most of our growers haven’t even seen wart before so the use of the word ‘infested' hasn’t gone in our favour.”
“Potato wart can be a serious issue but it’s under control by our management plan that’s been approved by the CFIA, the provincial government here and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We found (only) two cases here so basically it shows our plan is working. It’s been promoted as a science based issue but science seems to be on our side,” Phillips said.
“It’s unreasonable (for the federal government to impose a ban on PEI seed potato exports to the U.S.) when we have a plan in place that’s working.”
“There are 300 million pounds of potatoes that don’t have a home so we’ve been making efforts to get potatoes to food banks. Nobody wants to have to destroy them,” Phillips said.
Not all potatoes are the same, Phillips explained, but some types are already being destroyed.
Others can be preserved and given to food banks Canada-wide for a few more months.
Phillips did not provide a dollar figure on the losses suffered by PEI potato farmers but said initial compensation from the federal government was “quite inadequate.”
“They basically offered enough to destroy the potatoes, not for the loss of sales or the cost of the product. There’s been a bit more talk on that. They've come back with the provincial government stepping in and offering a bit more to get it closer to the cost of production, but this was a record crop, a beautiful crop, one of the highest yields we’ve had.”
“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure we don’t waste the food. The food banks have been great to try and help us get them to people in need,” Phillips said on a gracious note.
“It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dark time. It’s good to be able to see these getting to people and knowing that they appreciate them. People need assistance with food and you see prices going up all the time. We’re so grateful to the food banks and Second Harvest for all the work they’re doing to make this happen and get these potatoes to people who can really use them right now.”
In a ‘big picture' comment on hunger and the need for food in Canada, Second Harvest’s Madison Maguire said “a recent report by Second Harvest showed an outpouring of support from the public when the pandemic first hit, but the rising cost of food continues to pose a need and a task to rescue non-perishables (and provide them to the needy). The report found 61,000 organizations in Canada that are providing food to their communities.”
“That definitely shows that unfortunately there are so many people that have to access that support.”
The need for potatoes and other food items in the Sault is definitely there.
“We’re producing over 2,000 meals a week that are going out into the community for free,” said Carson Beauregard of Harvest Algoma.
“We’re doing pretty good in terms of food donations. There are small amounts coming from the public which we really appreciate. The bulk of it comes from Second Harvest and then we have verbal grocery store contracts. We rescue food from a number of grocery stores and small food businesses in Sault Ste. Marie. We always need donations so we encourage the community to donate food if they want to. Food donations and monetary donations are welcome.”
Non-perishable cans of food - such as beans, soup and canned meats - as well as pasta and grains are needed, Beauregard said, adding Harvest Algoma also rescues food from local restaurants.
“We really appreciate all of the donations that Second Harvest sends us. They’re a huge help to our community,” Beauregard said.