Calgary Food Bank saves potatoes from compost heap by turning them into soup
Initiative supports local catering business and helps fill hampers, CEO says
When life gives us lemons, we know what the old adage suggests we do: make lemonade.
But what about 1,000 pounds of donated potatoes?
That was the conundrum facing the Calgary Food Bank, which opted to make large quantities of potato soup.
A surplus of spuds led the organization to collaborate with J'Val Shuster, the chef and proprietor of Devour Catering, to make 1,000 two-cup servings of soup for its clients, Calgary Food Bank CEO James McAra told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.
The meal can last in the freezer for up to six months, which helps keep the fresh food from spoiling, McAra said.
The concept was a long time coming, and was initially discussed between McAra and local food writer Julie Van Rosendaal — Devour was able to turn it into action.
"We get huge donations of perishables, and, of course, as everyone knows, a perishable will only last so long," McAra said.
"Because we don't have food preparation at the food bank for that massive volume as you would in a commercial kitchen, [we had] a couple of conversations very early in COVID where [Van Rosendaal] said, 'Well, let's just turn them into something else.'"
Pandemic spurred potato glut
The excessive amount of potato donations is likely the result of both the recent harvest and a potato glut caused by COVID-19, McAra said.
Demand for spuds has dried up at processing plants across Canada and the United States due to the closure of restaurants and bars during the pandemic.
The donations were too much for the food bank to store in its own fridges, but repurposing it into food that could be frozen changed the game.
"We're trying to make sure that the food is used, and not just wasted," McAra said.
"We may get 20,000 pounds of potatoes at one go. And there's no way you can distribute that kind of glut at one opportunity, [so] this is great."
Initiative supports local business
In addition to rescuing taters from the compost heap, the initiative — which is still in its trial stages — allows the food bank to provide work for other local businesses during the pandemic.
It sends its potatoes to Devour Catering and pays them to make the soup itself, McAra said, resulting in more than just a hot meal.
"It's really difficult for restaurants and caterers … right now," McAra said.
"Devour Catering gets to get their people employed, so we're not losing people in a time of crisis, and the food bank gets fabulous soup out of the deal."
'The eyes light up'
According to McAra, the food bank is hoping to expand the program to include different seasonal produce and local businesses.
It will present challenges, as there is no consistency in the produce received by the food bank.
Harvest time may bring potatoes, McAra said, while spring could bring thousands of pounds of cucumbers and tomatoes.
But they are hoping to find those up to the task.
"We want to work with organizations that can, on a dime, say, 'Yeah, we could actually use that 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, and we can turn it into pesto,'" McAra said.
As for how the clients are responding when they see a locally made, freezable soup in their food hampers, McAra said they have reacted with delight.
"The eyes light up," McAra said.
"This is just another option for families as they're going through this, going, 'OK, I don't have to eat this vegetable right now, and I can put this one in the fridge until later.'
"So, it gives you more options for the family. And now, you've got more family gathering time."
With files from Riley Laychuk and the Calgary Eyeopener.