Pandemic Potato Donation Helps Feed Hungry Families

By Gavin Nichols

SAN ANTONIO — In late 2019, John Galbraith called the San Antonio Area Foundation to propose the idea of providing a truckload of potatoes to food banks in our region.

Image of John Galbraith
John Galbraith

We were in the process of starting to find funders when COVID-19 hit our region and were not able to do anything in 2020. He contacted us again in late 2020 to plan a potato delivery for early 2021. We were able to find a donor and the potatoes were delivered in late January.

What makes this donation so unique is that it involves a group of churches and nonprofits in Virginia that glean produce from the fields and give it to food pantries. Gleaning is the salvaging of excess vegetables and fruit from farm fields to prevent waste.

Galbraith, currently an Associate Professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech University, is originally from San Antonio and still has family here. He wanted to provide food for people in our area. He contacted 53 large and small food pantries and ended up providing 31 of them with anywhere from 50 to 1,600 pounds of potatoes!

The New River Valley Glean Team started as an outreach ministry of the Justice and Peace Committee at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Blacksburg, VA. Over the last decade, it has grown into a community group of volunteers from multiple denominations and civic groups. Their mission is to alleviate hunger in their region by providing fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables to low-income residents by growing food, gleaning vegetables and purchasing bulk potatoes.

The connection to donating food to the San Antonio area is through Galbraith. He was born and raised in San Antonio and almost all his cousins still live here, in the Hondo/Castroville/D’Hanis area. He contacted the Society of St. Andrew and found out that no one else was shipping bulk potatoes to San Antonio through them and set up the delivery here. The intent was also to mentor a group of volunteers in San Antonio who would take the lead and make it an annual event.

“It was very gratifying to help provide potatoes to people in South Central Texas, where our grandparents/great grandparents, Ed and May (Jagge) Poerner, raised us,” Galbraith said. “They lived through the Great Depression when food was very hard to come by — as it is now for out-of-work families. We wanted to give something back in their honor.”

The effort does not require qualifications, registration or payment from the food providers. The NRV Glean Team hopes to expand offerings to add other vegetables and help smaller food providers and those who do not receive food donations from government-supported organizations. 

50 lb bag of potatoes drop off
50-pound Bag Drop Off

Volunteers from the Ed and May Poerner family donated 42,000 pounds of red potatoes on in late January at the Northside ISD Gustafson stadium parking lot in San Antonio. A truck carrying potatoes grown in northern Minnesota was unloaded early in the morning before 13 family members organized the 50-pound bags into piles for pickup. 

The mainly faith-based food providers, who collectively serve 17,277 families each month, arrived from San Antonio, Floresville, Castroville, Hondo, Helotes, Boerne and Bulverde. In all, approximately 50-150 families in the region are served monthly.

The potato donation event was sponsored by a grant arranged by the San Antonio Area Foundation and a matching gift from a private donor in Virginia. The funds were used to pay shipping costs.

Volunteers at Potato Pick-Up

“The potatoes we donated would have been used for animal feed or discarded,” Galbraith noted. “Instead, we were joyous to be able to provide them free-of-charge to food providers in a time of great need.”

Not as joyous as some of the grateful beneficiaries of this wonderful altruistic effort.

For small-town food pantries that have less resources and reach than their large-city counterparts, every single donation goes a long way, particularly during the dire days of the pandemic, leaving so many people unable to put food at the table.

“We were grateful beyond measure by the outpouring of love displayed when we picked up our bags of potatoes!” exclaimed Judy Emmons, Food Ministry Leader at Cowboy Church in God’s Country, located in Hondo.

“We were able to bless and feed many families the first part of 2021. For a small food ministry to be sought out and encouraged in this way, it speaks volumes. Thank you!” Emmons added.

Allison Peterson, Grants Manager at Hill Country Daily Bread Ministries in Boerne, echoed the sentiment.

Gavin Nichols

“This was an awesome donation and I know such an important staple helped fill our boxes,” she said.

Gavin Nichols is Senior Program Officer for Youth Success in the San Antonio Area Foundation’s Community Engagement and Impact Department.