Inmates and Food Banks

UW giving of their surplus to help others

Published in the December 2009 Issue Published online: Dec 16, 2009
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With all the bad news being reported in the media on a daily basis, it's nice to hear about something good that happens once in a while. In central Wisconsin, there are a number of good people giving extra effort to provide potatoes to families in need. For instance, food pantry organizers have been lining up at the door to haul away tons of potatoes from the Rhinelander Agricultural Research Station (RARS).

Every year, in the course of its research activities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison facility, east of Rhinelander, produces a surplus of potatoes for which there is no ongoing research value-that is after numerous acres and 10s of thousands of potatoes have been carefully reviewed on the ground by breeders.

Superintendent Bryan Bowen comments, "What we have is a needle in the haystack situation, where we are looking to find all the breeding traits that can make a new variety, combined into one plant. This means we have to pass by a lot of experimental material that might be just a bit off what the consumer expects, but is still perfectly good to eat."

For more than 60 years, RARS has provided surplus potatoes to the state prison system in exchange for harvest labor. In recent years, local food pantries have begun receiving small amounts of potatoes in the Rhinelander and north central Wisconsin area. This year, the volume of potatoes donated to food pantries increased dramatically, in part due to monies donated to help offset the cost of harvest and labor. Bowen said, "It seems the word has spread and we have had food pantry organizers coming from Shawano, Wausau, Tomahawk, Rhinelander, Minocqua and Price County just to name a few."

In one case this fall, 20 tons were picked up for distribution through the Salvation Army in Wausau and the Food Pantry in Shawano.

"What sounds like a simple process is actually a large coordinated venture," according to Bob Gutknecht of WDATCP in Wausau who brought several of the players together in the Wausau area. "We had Bryan Bowen and his staff at RARS providing the potatoes and oversight of the harvest, made possible by the Department of Corrections, who brought in 12 inmates for hand picking and bagging; Ron Krueger of Felix Zeloski Farms, Eagle River donated new burlap bags; Bob Beyer, president of Ardex All American Mineral in Shawano provided a transport truck; and Sean Bennett offered Bennett Hardwoods as a staging location in Wausau, giving the Salvation Army a central location to distribute the potatoes to needy families." The Gutknecht family also provided a monetary donation that made the effort possible.

According to Gutknecht, of the 20 tons of potatoes delivered, 10 tons went to the Salvation Army in Wausau, which reported that the potatoes would be feeding about 750 families. Ten tons also went to the food pantry in Shawano where it was estimated the potatoes would be distributed within a week and a half.

"We dropped off the first 10 tons of potatoes in Wausau and returned to Rhinelander for the second load," said Gutknecht. "Sean Bennett called as we arrived at the research station and told us that the Salvation Army had picked up nine of the 10 tons we had just dropped off. I relayed this to one of the inmates working at the Rhinelander station, that nine tons of the potatoes he'd helped bag were already being distributed to over 700 families. He was proud of that fact and told us that he would be calling his mom from prison to let her know that even though he was in prison, he was doing good things for people."

"This would not have been possible without the help of all of the people and agencies involved," Gutknecht added. "It's a real credit to the potato industry of Wisconsin, especially the Rhinelander Ag Research Station. Bryan Bowen and his staff work extra hard to assist the food pantries in north-central Wisconsin."

The sister UW station in Hancock, Wis. (see the related story on page 12), also contributes potatoes to pantries south of Stevens Point according to Mary LeMere, Assistant Superintendent.

Gutknecht said, "Mike and Toni Rupiper of Nicolet Farms in Suring and Dave Wirth of Wirth Brothers in Suring make regular donations to area food pantries, and there are probably others I'm not aware of."

"People need to recognize that farmers and the UW research stations in the state are doing a lot of good for a lot of people," Gutknecht said. "They are hardworking, generous people who don't ask for much in return. But they certainly deserve our thanks."