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Gleaning Sweet Potatoes for a Good Cause

Posted by Jan Suszkiw, Agricultural Research Service in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017

After grading and collecting research data, Larry Adams and his crew fill sweet potato sacks for delivery to the Leland Food Pantry in Leland, Mississippi. There, the freshly dug sweet potatoes will be distributed to low-income families and other needy members of the community. 

Adams, an entomologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Stoneville, Mississippi, figures the potatoes will be made into any number of tasty dishes—from casseroles and pies to chips, gratin and fries.

North Carolina, followed by Mississippi, Louisiana, California and Texas, produces the lion’s share of America’s $500 million sweet potato crop, considered a “nutritional powerhouse” food for its high content of beta carotene, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Adams’s sweet potatoes come from small field plots that he maintains in support of research led by Randy Luttrell at ARS’s Southern Insect Management Research Unit in Stoneville. The plots, which Adams establishes in May using small shoots called “slips,” are integral to Lutrell’s research on protecting the crop from harm caused by insect pests such as wireworms and tiny wormlike organisms called “nematodes.”

Luttrell’s projects run the gamut from evaluating different insecticide regimens prior to transplanting the slips to collecting data on the performance of new potential sweet potato varieties. Once that data are collected and analyzed, the plots are cleared in preparation for the next season’s research.

But a few years ago, Adams got to thinking more about the large amount, and good condition, of the sweet potatoes that often remained in the plots after the research had ended.

“I thought, we’re getting ready to destroy all these sweet potatoes, that’s a waste!”  So, he called the operator of the Leland Food Pantry and asked her if she wanted the sweet potatoes. She did, and Adams and a group of volunteers from the lab dug up the potatoes, put them in 12- to 15-pound sacks, and drove their bounty to the pantry.

The sweet potatoes were a hit, so he donated the following year’s harvest as well. Adams estimates the lab donated 150 pounds of sweet potatoes this past November and 400 pounds the year before. This year’s crop is in the ground for the coming fall season.  We hope to donate a good-sized harvest again to this community organization. Regardless of the size of the harvest, “they go quickly,” he says.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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jana fortier
Jun 14, 2017

Nice blog piece. Just a point to add... the farmer (you, or a real farmer) should engage in "exchange" of value to really make this program successful. In other words, you (or a farmer) need to have the gleaners do labor/work in order to reap the produce/sweet potatoes. You can't just expect farmers who have input land, fertilizer, seed, and labor to give away produce. This is because the produce acts as a fertilizer, not a food waste, on fields. And also, an exchange of labor creates stronger reciprocal ties between farmer/producer and worker/consumer. Real gleaning is different than just donating food.