Community volunteers hand-picked 7.5 tons of potatoes to feed their neighbors during an event sponsored by Aroostook County Action Program on Saturday. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

ST. JOHN, Maine — Aroostook County is as well-known for farming potatoes as for being a place where people look out for one another. 

Those factors came together when more than 250 volunteers hand-picked more than 7.5 tons of Dark Red Norland potatoes from a St. John potato plot donated by G.B. and D. Pelletier Farms. The potatoes will be given to food pantries, community cupboards, child care centers and schools around Aroostook County to help sustain people who are experiencing food insecurity. 

The most recent statistics available from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study in 2020 showed that 9,140 Aroostook County residents, or 13.5 percent of the population, experienced food insecurity. As the cost of groceries continues to rise throughout the country, food banks in Maine have reported an increase in residents who are food insecure and a decrease in food donations to help people who need them most.

Aroostook County Action Program organized the potato picking event where the volunteers filled more than 3,000 ACAP 50th anniversary five-pound potato bags designed by Fort Kent artist Gert Thibodeau. 

Northeast Packaging Company of Presque Isle/Caribou produced the bags for free.

Grace Interfaith Food Table, a non-profit food pantry run entirely by volunteers dedicated to helping end hunger in Central Aroostook, has reported a shortage of food donations.

“We’re not getting half the donations we used to, which isn’t great,” GIFT director of volunteers Ray Dube said.

Dube attributes the lull in food donations to the overall increase in the cost of groceries.

ACAP dropped off 200 bags of potatoes to GIFT on Saturday, which will help fill the bellies of hungry families, Dube said.

“They can do mashed potatoes, baked, fries — there’s a bunch of ways you can cook up potatoes,” Dube said. 

Among the volunteer potato pickers on the weekend were 180 Fort Kent Elementary School students in grades four through six.

“I like how our school is helping everyone,” sixth-grader Cheyo Flores Nadeau said.

Dean of students Kevin Anderson said the potato picking event was a great experience for the young students.

Fort Kent Elementary School students helped harvest the ACAP 50th Anniversary Potato Plot at G, B, and D Pelletier Farms on Saturday.  From left, are, sixth-graders Cheyo Flores Nadeau, Jaxson Saucier and Andre Caron. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

“Not only do they get to help others but they get to see where food comes from, that it’s not just something that shows up on your plate,” Anderson said. 

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will deliver two bags of potatoes to the White House kitchen in Washington, D.C. 

The season-long project is meant to call attention to Aroostook’s agriculture as an industry and to its signature crop — potatoes. It also will combat food insecurity, highlight County artists and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Aroostook Community Action Program, according to ACAP. 

“It culminated in a heart-warming display of the community coming together with the old-

fashioned hand harvesting that brought back wonderful memories for some, and created brand new ones for others,” an ACAP press release said.