Truckloads of P.E.I. potatoes arriving at food banks across Canada 

Hundreds of truckloads of P.E.I. potatoes will be heading to food banks from coast to coast to coast over the next six months, part of efforts to make use of surplus potatoes sitting in Island warehouses because of the export ban to the United States.

Food bank organizations hope to distribute more than 300 tractor-trailer loads across the country

P.E.I. potatoes are being distributed by Second Harvest Canada to food agencies across Ontario. (Submitted by John VanderZwaag)

Truckloads of P.E.I. potatoes have started to arrive at food banks across Canada, part of an effort to distribute potatoes left sitting in Island warehouses because of the 10-week ban on exports to the United States.

The P.E.I. Potato Board is helping to co-ordinate the shipments, along with two of the country's largest food bank organizations, with funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced it was suspending the fresh potato trade to the U.S. following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields, bringing exports usually worth about $120 million per year to the P.E.I. economy to a sudden halt

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will meet on the issue Thursday in Washington. 

Boxes of P.E.I. potatoes have arrived at Moisson Montreal. (Submitted by John VanderZwaag)

John VanderZwaag grew up on P.E.I. and is now operations manager at a produce marketing and distribution company in Toronto.

He has been involved with Second Harvest Canada for more than six years, helping to facilitate donations of P.E.I. potatoes to the organization, amounting to around a million pounds per year. 

He said it was now time to give back.

"Our growers in Prince Edward Island that we deal with have always been very helpful in filling the need when there was a need," VanderZwaag said.

"This year, we flipped the relationship around the other way, and now we're going to lean on Second Harvest to help the growers who are now the ones in need. And that's kind of how this whole program came about."

My goal would be, if we can move more, we will move more.— John VanderZwaag, produce distributor

VanderZwaag has family who work in the potato industry on the Island, so he was hearing personal stories about the impact of the border closure. 

"When you sit here in Toronto and just try to come up with an idea that would make a difference, 200 loads out of the grand scheme of things may not sound like a lot, but if everyone that has an involvement with P.E.I. could do their tiny little part, we might help save the industry," VanderZwaag said.

"That's the main thing. We don't want to lose growers, we don't want to lose potato packers. The value to the Island economy, to everyone on the Island, is very, very important."

P.E.I. potatoes being handed out at Helping Hands in Sudbury, Ont. (Submitted by John VanderZwaag )

Huge quantity

The first truck load of potatoes arrived Wednesday at Feed Nova Scotia, one of six bi-weekly shipments planned for the organization. 

"To get six trailer loads of potatoes, that's sixty pallets, which is a huge quantity of potatoes," said executive director Nick Jennery. 

"But the good news is that we will quickly distribute them to 140 food banks, shelters and meal programs around the province."

Nick Jennery of Feed Nova Scotia holds one of the bags from the first of six truck loads of P.E.I. potatoes that will be part of the food bank program. (Submitted by Nick Jennery)

Jennery said farmers have always been big supporters of Feed Nova Scotia, so he has some mixed feelings about the situation. 

"When I heard that the farmers, their market had been disrupted, there's obviously a sadness that goes with that," Jennery said.

"Having said that, the potatoes that have come in to Feed Nova Scotia, I am hugely excited about that. The whole team is excited because we see the impact that giving bags of potatoes to people who can't afford to put food on the table. It's a big moment."

'A small light spot'

The P.E.I. Potato Board is helping with the logistics, which will also include another large national organization, Food Banks Canada.

Board marketing specialist Mark Phillips said it has been good for farmers to see loads of potatoes leaving the Island heading to the food banks.

"We haven't been able to give people much good news these days," Phillips said.

"It's a small little light spot in an otherwise very dark time, so … they're definitely appreciative of it, but we still need the border open is the biggest thing.

Jennery says farmers have always been big supporters of Feed Nova Scotia, so he has some mixed feelings about the situation. (Submitted by Nick Jennery)

"Some people, when I call them, they said they just weren't moving anything at the moment. So this gives them the ability to get their crew in, to pack up a load."

Ultimately all of our growers want these foods to be consumed, and this is a way for them to do it.— Mark Phillips, P.E.I. Potato Board

Phillips said growers are being paid a negotiated price, which is not where the market would have been, but it allows them to get the funds into more hands.

"Ultimately all of our growers want these foods to be consumed, and this is a way for them to do it, " Phillips said.

"It's not where we probably ultimately want to put it, but it's the best way to spread the funds out as evenly to people as possible."

Five-month plan

VanderZwaag said Second Harvest plans to send about ten tractor-trailer loads a week to its locations across the country, from coast to coast, and into northern Canada. 

"Our plan right now is to move about 10 loads per week, which would put us into about a five-month plan," VanderZwaag said.

"Obviously if there is still additional funding remaining and there are still potatoes in good condition on the Island, my goal would be if we can move more, we will move more. And if we can move 300, then we're going to go for it." 

Pallets of P.E.I. potatoes are ready for distribution at the Second Harvest warehouse in Etobicoke, Ont. (Submitted by John VanderZwaag)

VanderZwaag said he hopes this program will continue.

"Hopefully this is a relationship that we can grow in coming years," VanderZwaag said.

"If the border opens, and everything goes back to business as usual, we have to realize that this is a need that's always here — not just in 2022." 


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.