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Sweet potato project shoots out of start gate | Community Spirit

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Sweet potato project shoots out of start gate
Sweet potato project shoots out of start gate

A new project is taking root in Madison.

The Sweet Potato Project provides free sweet potatoes for planting on the condition that growers donate half of the resulting produce to a food pantry. 

Meredith Evans McAllister initiated the Madison Sweet Potato Project in late summer of 2012. Project participants, which include Madison farmers, community gardeners and home-growers, will plant their potatoes this June and donate half of the potatoes they grow to local food pantries in September and early October.

Former Kansas City resident McAllister adopted the project from her hometown and helped establish the Sweet Potato Project in the Madison community. 

“I saw this project and thought this is perfect for Madison,” McAllister said.

Though sister projects, Madison Sweet Potato Project differs from the Kansas City initiative in level of community outreach. 

In its first year, volunteers for the Kansas City project donated 30 pounds of potatoes to a local food bank. Now in its fifth year, the Kansas City project plans to donate 10,000 pounds. The Madison Sweet Potato Project forecasts the first year harvest will be around 24,000 pounds of potatoes, which means 12,000 pounds donated to local food pantries. 

McAllister saw a need for the Sweet Potato Project at the Dane County's River Food Pantry in Madison where she works as operations manager. In this food pantry alone, the staff sees about 600 families per week. 

“Working at a food pantry, the shelf life of produce is so crucial,” said McAllister. The Beauregard variety of sweet potatoes that project growers will use matures fast, has nutritious, orange flesh and a long shelf life. These characteristics make the potato a perfect candidate for a pantry project.

Within the next few months McAllister will be departing Madison to continue her education in Boston. She will leave the Madison Sweet Potato Project in the hands of a qualified committee: Slow Food Madison, Equinox Farms, UW Extension and Community Action Coalition.

The committee will also collaborate with other organizations such as Willy Street Co-op. In April and early May, the co-op will host a few gardening classes for inexperienced sweet potato growers, which will be directed by the UW Extension and Equinox Farms. The classes will cover topics like how to prepare the soil, how to plant the sweet potato slip properly, and how to care for the plant.

John Binkley at Equinox Farms explained that a sweet potato slip is a sprout from last year's potato, essentially a slip is equivalent to one sweet potato plant. McAllister compared the slip to dental floss, which helps depict the minuscule size.

“This project is taking off a lot more than I expected ... hopefully next year it’s even bigger,” McAllister said.

The Madison committee ordered 8,000 organic sweet potato slips from Kansas City for this season. 

“We have some farmers that signed up to grow 500 to 1,000,” McAllister said. “We are still open to people growing but eventually we will have to cap it.” The Madison Sweet Potato Project surpassed their goal of 7,500 ordered slips in early January.

“We want this to grow into something that is a nationwide thing,” McAllister said. She envisions the project spreading to many other communities.

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