A potato story, with a silver lining: how my bud, the potato, escaped inflation

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When life gives you potatoes, make poutine.

That’s what a food bank in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut did after receiving a shipment of potatoes earlier this year that was part of a 300 million pound surplus in Canada.

The potatoes came from Prince Edward Island, that greatest producer of the source of all things delicious: fries, chips, wedges.

As food prices rise, the single potato is the only staple that is getting cheaper. Statistics Canada data last week showed that prices for all food products increased from April 2021 to April 2022, with the exception of potatoes, the price of which fell by 6.1%. In a time of growing concern over grocery lists, gas prices, housing, and more, the trusty potato is the one food offering real comfort to Canadians this year.

FYI, I could eat potatoes all day. Add a few chunks of potato to a plate of chicken biryani and it’s a game changer. Add potato salad to a barbecue. It’s the only vegetable that’s as nutritious as meat and actually tastes better (don’t @ me). Potatoes are versatile and are also gluten-free.

During a recent visit to a grocer in Brampton, the cashier told me that the whole wheat flour was out of stock. But amid the aisles of fresh produce and packaged spices were sacks and sacks of 10-pound potatoes for $1.99 each.

There’s a less heartwarming story why gold nuggets are easy to come by these days. It all started in October, when two potato fields in Prince Edward Island discovered warts on their crop. The fungus spreads through the soil and is harmless to humans, says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But warts reduce yields and are generally not pretty.

The federal government has suspended potato exports from PEI. to the United States — and the United States followed later with its own ban — which accounts for about 40% of PEI’s table and seed potato trade. (The first is the potato we eat and the second is the type used to grow). That left farmers with a “huge” surplus, says Kendra Mills, director of marketing for the PEI Potato Board, which represents the province’s potato growers.

To put that into perspective, Prince Edward Island produces about 2.5 billion pounds a year. The ban meant 300 million pounds, or about an eighth potatoes, had nowhere to go.

“There are only 39 million people in Canada and we have another 300 million pounds,” Mills said.

To offset some of the blow to farmers, a perishables rescue group that has worked with PEI growers for years has asked the federal government for funds to buy some of the potatoes . The government then earmarked funds as part of a $30 million top-up to its Emergency Food Security Fund so that organizations such as Second Harvest could purchase and transport surplus potatoes to banks. food services and other emergency food service groups across Canada.

Second Harvest allocated nearly $4 million for the spuds. Three to four trucks make deliveries daily, with a total of 10 million potatoes expected to be saved by June, said Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest.

Some of the potatoes have gone as far as the Yukon, said Kirstin Beardsley, CEO of Food Banks Canada, which plans to spend about $1.5 million. They delivered about 66 truckloads of potatoes across the country, including to the Ikurraq Food Bank in Nunavut, which offered customers poutine, as well as caribou and stew. (Potatoes were first trucked from Prince Edward Island to Manitoba, then flown to Nunavut.)

This equates to approximately 3.6 million pounds of potatoes. Beardsley expects to reach 70 truckloads by the end of June.

What happened to all the potatoes that couldn’t be saved?

About 260 million pounds of Canada’s golden gems have been thrown into snowblowers and destroyed – much to the horror of farmers struggling for their harvest and potato lovers everywhere.

The Ikurraq Food Bank in Nunavut used part of its share of the surplus to make poutine for its customers.

“You put so much effort and blood, sweat, tears, money…into a crop and you literally have to blow it through a snowblower, it’s terrible,” said Mills, who is owned by a family of potato growers. But putting so many potatoes on the market would have driven prices down for other farmers, she said.

At the same time, says Mills, “There probably hasn’t been a time in our history when we’ve fed so many hungry people.”

There are many good reasons to embrace potatoes now, especially as a tribute to those who have been sacrificed.

Potatoes are a fresh, nutritious and affordable food alternative to other items on Canadians’ grocery lists, says Simon Somogyi, professor and Arrell Chair in Food Affairs at the University of Guelph. They’re also high in carbs, which means they’ll keep us full longer.

You can make a million different dishes out of them, adds Mills, and they can last a long time in cupboards. She suggests keeping them in a cool, dry, covered place away from light, such as under a sink, to prolong their lifespan.

Although export restrictions have since eased (for table potatoes, not seed potatoes), farmers are now planting for the next potato season what is “the worst crop”. most expensive we’ve ever produced,” Mills said, pointing to high fertilizer and diesel costs. As a result, some wonder whether it is worth continuing to plant potatoes or cultivating at all.

This means that for the remaining farmers, Mills expects the humble potato to catch up with its more expensive food companions next season.

So take advantage of it while you can.

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