Sifting through the produce bin, shoppers find sweet potatoes that are big and small, round and pointy, thin and lumpy. And still there are bigger and weirder-shaped sweet potatoes that never make it to the supermarket.
Sweet potatoes must meet size and shape requirements for commercial sale. According to Kyle Williams, director of corporate partnerships at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, even though they taste the same and have the same nutritional value, large sweet potatoes are difficult to sell in bags, and shoppers are less likely to choose irregular shapes.
Some unwanted sweet potatoes end up in cans or as animal feed, but most are thrown out. Non-profit ReFED estimates farms lose about 10 million tons of cosmetically imperfect or unharvested foods each year.
David Cloniger had an idea to stop the waste.
Cloniger was the food resource manager at Second Harvest in Nashville when he started the Farm to Families project with sweet potato farmer Matt West. West donated the unused sweet potatoes to the food bank, and in return, the food bank delivered the sweet potatoes to families in need.
It worked out well, but it’s a labor-intensive process.
West’s 170 acres of sweet potatoes are harvested mechanically, and the larger ones without commercial value are sorted out and left in the field. Once the harvested sweet potatoes are brought inside, they’re assessed again, and the ones that don’t make the cut are set aside. Workers then go back into the field to pick up the left-behind sweet potatoes.
Then, the sweet potatoes are loaded on pallets for food bank volunteers and staff to transport one hour and 30 minutes from Fayetteville, Tenn., to Nashville.
To help support the program, Piedmont Natural Gas Foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to the food bank in 2015. The grant meant the food bank could pay West for the potatoes so he could pay his 15 to 20 employees to collect the sweet potatoes from the field.
“That’s my favorite part of the program and what we contribute to – it hits workforce development by paying workers an honest day’s wage, and it offsets environmental concerns,” Piedmont Natural Gas Community Relations Manager Stephen Francescon said.
In two years, the program has collected nearly 500,000 pounds of sweet potatoes – enough to make 407,000 meals.
“I’m not getting rich doing this,” West said, “but it’s something I think ought to be done. I’ve thrown away bins of sweet potatoes in my life, and that just makes me sick.”
He said he would take them to a cannery, but the nearest one is about 400 miles away, so being able to pay his workers and know the produce he worked hard to grow will be on a family’s table is a good feeling.
To help families learn new ways to prepare sweet potatoes, the grant also funded eight cooking demonstrations led by the food bank’s registered dieticians at distribution sites.
“This is a good, healthy product,” West said, “and the thing about sweet potatoes is they keep a long time.”
If stored in a dark place in dirt at the proper temperature, sweet potatoes can last up to a year, according to West. Some of Second Harvest’s sweet potatoes are distributed immediately, and others are stored to be distributed as needed throughout the year.
“There’s no need for anybody to go hungry in this country. Something may not look as pretty,” West said, “but sometimes, the ugliest apple is the sweetest.”
Sweet potato hash recipe
A low-cost, healthy sweet potato dish from Second Harvest Food Bank and Piedmont Natural Gas
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped bell peppers
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat.
- Cook onions and peppers until tender -- about 5 minutes.
- Add remaining ingredients and reduce heat to medium.
- Cook for 20 minutes stirring frequently. Serve hot.