The Boyertown Area Times
Volunteers gather to help Potato Project
Last Saturday afternoon, May 6, I enjoyed helping Rotarians from Bethlehem Morning Star, Fleetwood, Kutztown, Lehigh Valley Passport, Pottstown, Slatington, Spring Township and West Reading/Wyomissing, as well as volunteers from other walks of life, as we literally cut apart thousands of pounds of seed potatoes.
The chunks that we created enable a single potato to be sectioned into multiple seed chunks. When planted, each seed chunk will eventually yield a harvest of many pounds of potatoes. We banded together for this effort, organized by Bob Hobaugh, Rotary District 7430 immediate past district governor, to contribute to the Potato Project.
In past years, while performing at Kutztown’s Heemet Fescht at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, I noticed an impressive crop of potatoes that had just been dug out. There were thousands of pounds of wholesome potatoes, neatly boxed and waiting for pickup. They were grown in a field adjacent to the center’s property.
I asked someone what they were going to be used for, and I was told that these were potatoes for the Potato Project, and they would be distributed to the food insecure in a multicounty region. I was impressed.
In April, Bob, Keri Shultz, president of the Reading Musical Foundation, and I, co-chair of Reading Musical Foundation’s annual fundraising and development campaign, were making weekly visits to many of the regional Rotary Clubs for the purpose of explaining the RMF mission and our need. During one conversation, we veered off the topic of music when Bob mentioned seed cutting for the Potato Project.
Rekindling my curiosity about the Potato Project, I found myself asking Bob questions about who it all works. Next thing you know, I invited myself, with Bob’s blessing, to join the grassroots effort to create potato seed from whole potatoes for this year’s crop.
Paring knife I hand, I showed up and went straight to work along with the other volunteers. Hands caked with soil and enough dirt to grow potatoes under my fingernails, I enjoyed every second of helping to do this good deed. You can’t get more organic in terms of intent and actual reality than rolling up your sleeves and prepping potato seed.
Each of us worked in a style that Henry Ford would have approved of. All of us who were seed cutters had huge bags of
potatoes dumped I front of us on our respective cutting tables, then we’d cut the spuds apart and fill 5-gallon buckets that were hauled away and replaced with empty buckets to be refilled.
The haulers were really getting the heavy lifting part of our tuberous assembly line. This went on for about three hours and then, with a collective breath of accomplishment, the job was finished, at least for that day. Another group of volunteers did the same thing again the next day, and others were performing the same task and routine in different counties.
I asked Bob a steady stream of questions, and he dutifully and patiently provided answers. Here are a few of them.
“Where do all of these volunteers come from?” I asked Bob.
“They’re District 7430 Rotarians, friends of Rotary, and they’re from colleges, universities, churches and other places,” he said. “During the harvest, we also get help from Rotaractors from high schools. You can check out the IHartHarvest Inc. website for more information https://www.ihartharvest.org.”
“Gee, Bob,” I said. “There sure are a lot of potatoes here. Can you guesstimate how many pounds of seed potatoes we cut up today?”
“Three thousand two hundred and fifty manually,” Bob said. “Many more were cut up by machine. We participated in the first of two days in which 10,000 pounds were cut.”
“Amazing,” I said. “Are the potatoes we used donated or, if they’re bought, which entity pays for them?”
“Weaver’s Hardware and its president, Ed Schenk, donated 15,000 pounds of potatoes to IHartHarvest Inc. in 2023, and also generously donated potatoes in prior years,” Bob said. “These will all be planted during the week of April 24, and we plant in land donated by friends for our use. Most of the tracts we plant are less than 5 acres. IHartHarvest donates them to Helping Harvest (the food bank that serves Berks and Schuylkill counties.”
“This is truly great Bob,” I said. “How can interested people get involved as volunteers or as land use donators?”
“There are volunteer sign up opportunities on the website for IHartHarvest Inc.,” he said. “All adults are welcome to participate. Minors must have the consent and/or supervision of their parents.”
“In your role, and from your point of view Bob, why do this?” I asked. “What makes it special?”
Bob smiled again and spoke softly: “I began this work with potatoes through my church, Trinity Lutheran in Kutztown, when Walt Zawaski and his wife, Linda Zawaski, were parishioners and started the Potato Project in 2009. They formed the Pennsylvania nonprofit IHartHarvest Inc. in 2011.
“Rotary District 7430 consists of Berks, Lehigh, Northampton, Montgomery (part) and Bucks (part) counties. As an assistant governor of the district, I presented on the Potato Project in 2014 at the District 7430 Conference and promoted it in Rotary since then. The Kutztown Rotary Club successfully applied for district grants twice for the benefit of the project.
“Our members have also contributed equipment and funds toward equipment. I offered seed cutting and harvesting to our district Rotarians. My job is to assemble Rotarian and Rotaract volunteers, participate in seed cutting in April and harvesting in September, and provide hot dogs for the harvest where we also serve fresh cut french fries.
“I do this work because the Project supplies unprocessed food to the food insecure in our communities and builds a stronger community. That mission aligns with my personal goals. So, I’ve participated in the project since 2009 and have brought Rotarians to the Potato Project since 2014 but do not lead the Potato Project.
“Walt Zawaski, president, and Linda Zawaski, deputy director, and the board of IHartHarvest Inc. lead the project. We also grow squash, string beans, carrots, sweet corn, and for revenue we’ve grown cattle corn in the past.”