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Published March 16, 2009, 01:58 PM

Spuds giveaway is no small potatoes

Ryan Potato gives away 40,000 pounds of potatoes
On the day before St. Patrick’s Day, it took four hours to pass the potatoes — but that was just half the time allotted by Ryan Potato Co. and the Salvation Army to distribute 40,000 pounds of spuds today. By noon, the long Ryan semi parked in the former Leever’s parking lot on South Washington Street sat empty, and volunteers stood with two dozen still-hopeful people, waiting for the last of nine pickup reloads coming from the Ryan plant.

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

The day before St. Patrick’s Day, it took four hours to pass the potatoes — but that was just half the time allotted by Ryan Potato Co. and The Salvation Army to distribute 40,000 pounds of spuds Monday.

By noon, the long Ryan semi parked in the former Leever’s parking lot on South Washington Street sat empty, and volunteers stood with two dozen still-hopeful people, waiting for the last of nine pickup reloads coming from the Ryan plant.

“We were going to go until 6 p.m.,” said Gary Shields, director of development for The Salvation Army, “but this will be it. The response has been overwhelming.”

It was as if they were giving away bags of gold, but these were 15-pound bags of Red River Valley reds, and many of the people who wrapped their arms around a bag said it was well worth a trip across town.

It was a festive open market, with people laughing and joking. “Don’t eat them all in one day now,” Shields said as he handed 15 pounds of potatoes to one man. But a few people cried as they accepted a bag of potatoes, which had a retail value of maybe $6.

“One lady this morning was bawling, she was so grateful,” Shields said. “She said it’s small things like this that help people get through hard times.”

People waiting

Ryan had contacted The Salvation Army and initially offered to contribute the potatoes to its regular food programs, but the limited shelf life of bagged potatoes would have made storage a problem, Shields said.

“We pulled up with the semi after 8:30, and there were people waiting,” he said. “One guy was in a hurry. He was leaving town, and he wanted to take a bag of spuds as he headed out of town.”

It took less than two hours to empty the semi. A Salvation Army mobile soup kitchen also quickly ran out of about 30 gallons of potato soup.

DuWayne Heyd picked up a bag in the morning, and then returned at noon to get spuds for a neighbor.

“My neighbor doesn’t have a car,” he said. “I was over there for some lunch, and he said, ‘Hey, can you run and get me a bag of potatoes?’

“We live in a pretty good part of the country, don’t we? These people ought to be commended for doing this.”

Where’s the fruit?

LoAnn Martin and Carol Smaaladen drove to the busy lot during their half-hour lunch break, and each received a bag of potatoes — along with recipe cards for Ryan’s Irish Stew.

“I saw that Hugo’s had potatoes on sale, so if there was a long line here we were just going to go buy some potatoes,” Martin said. “But I think it’s wonderful for Ryan to be doing this. It’s getting harder for everybody to pay for groceries.

“Now find somebody who’ll give out fruit!”

Scott Johnson, from East Grand Forks, held son Caden, 10 months, as wife Marisa Hodny Johnson collected a bag of potatoes for the family.

Both worked at Cirrus Design in Grand Forks but lost their jobs in cutbacks earlier this year. Scott was to start a new job Monday, and Marisa starts work at another location Wednesday.

“We’ll be getting better soon,” Scott said, “but it’s pretty tight right now, so free food is good to come by.”

Joan Ryan Mangino, president of the family company, and several other executives and employees helped distribute the potatoes, some of which went to church groups and food shelves.

“It’s been a blast,” she said as she waited for the final pickup load, which arrived and — in minutes — was emptied.

“Maybe this will mushroom,” she said. “Maybe other businesses will ask, ‘What can we do?'"

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com.

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