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The great potato giveaway: U.S. farmers hand out spuds to avoid food waste

REUTERS – When Tina Yates pulled her truck up to a mall in western Washington state on Thursday, workers waved her past hundreds of cars waiting to pick up free russet potatoes.

“You get a VIP pass!” Yates, a bus driver in her 50s, said the workers hollered, as she loaded 1,800 pounds (816 kg) of potatoes into her gray Chevy Silverado, bound for the Salvation Army, local food banks and homes throughout western Washington.

Giving away food is just one example of how people around the world are adjusting to the strain the coronavirus pandemic has put on supply chains, as restaurants, schools and hotels close. With unemployment soaring, demand from food banks is rising fast at the same time farmers have fewer outlets to sell their crops.

In Washington, the No. 2 U.S. potato growing state after Idaho, a billion pounds of russet potatoes, normally processed into french fries and hash browns, are sitting in warehouses that would typically be emptying ahead of the July harvest, the Washington State Potato Commision said.

Instead, the organization is handing out the surplus for free in brown sacks, 100,000 pounds at a time.

“Everyone in Washington would have to eat about 500 pounds of potatoes from now until the 4th of July to clear out that pipeline,” said Brandy Tucker, the commission’s director of marketing.

Around 90% of Washington potatoes are processed for food service, nearly half for international markets. Potato producers in Europe have also faced enormous surpluses.

The commission is planning more than a dozen donation events by the end of May. But even giving away potatoes comes with the cost of washing, bagging and shipping.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is attempting to chip away at the mountain of produce unable to get to consumers. This week it said it would buy an additional $470 million in food, including $50 million in potatoes to give to food banks.

Farmers such as Adam Weber, a third generation grower at Weber Farms in Quincy, Washington, say it is better to give away potatoes than dump them.

“If the price is well below what it costs to grow them, do you just sit on them for a while and hope things turn around? Or just go from $200 dollars down to $30 (per ton). That’s how drastic the price has changed,” he said.

Weber said he will plant 1,000 fewer acres on his 6,500 acre farm this year because of lower demand from processing companies. Some canceled entire contracts, according to Tucker from the potato commission.

“They (potato growers) are going to be holding the bag,” said Weber.

Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Daniel Wallis.

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