Any way you slice it, Ray Buchanan and Ken Horne know more than anyone ever wanted to know about potatoes. They've heard every potato joke. They've eaten meals where everything on the menu was made from potatoes. "I've had enough potato soup to float a battleship," said Horne. "But all of it was worth it."
The two Methodist ministers are directors of the Potato Project, a nationwide network that delivers surplus potatoes to soup kitchens and other organizations for the hungry. Yesterday, two trucks carrying 90,000 pounds of potatoes rolled into the National Shrine parking lot, bringing the project's total distribution to an eye-popping 100 million pounds since its founding in 1983.
Martha's Table, a local shelter that has received more than a million pounds from the project, marked the occasion by passing out -- what else? -- hot potato soup.
"It's not a pipe dream," Buchanan told the audience later at the Madison Hotel, where the two men were honored by Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb and Ohio Rep. Tony Hall, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger. "There's enough food to feed everyone who is hungry in America."
"It's exciting working with people who are working on the grass-roots level," said Hall. "Because that's where it's at."
The grass roots, in this case, sprang up in Big Island, Va. ("We actually live in Sweet Hollow," said Buchanan. "It's in the suburbs of Big Island.") Buchanan and Horne, both 44, first met at Duke University divinity school in the mid-'70s, became fast friends and together founded the Society of St. Andrew in 1979.
Their original purpose was to educate people about hunger in America. They began to concentrate on the amount of food wasted in this country: 20 percent of the food intended for human consumption is thrown away -- it's perfectly edible but may be surplus or unsuitable for standard packaging or processing. "I didn't think of it as waste," one farmer told Buchanan. "It was just the cost of doing business."
The Potato Project started out (housed in a sheep shed) as an eight-week summer project targeting surplus potatoes for shelters in Washington and Virginia. The potato was almost perfect: easy to ship and preserve, highly nutritious, low in calories and fat, and cheap -- 1 cent per serving.
Seven years and zillions of potatoes later, the two head a nationwide system of matching farmers and agencies that serve the poor. "It's like a produce broker," said Horne. "But you don't have buyers and sellers; you have donors and recipients."
The project has enough food donations, and the distribution network is in place. Transportation costs, said Buchanan, are the problem. The average truck trip costs $1,500, which is why so few potatoes come from remote areas. Idaho, for example, one of the leading potato-producing states, is too far from major distribution centers to make the trip cost efficient.
As more attention is focused on the problems of hunger in America, the two directors are optimistic about the project -- even if they have to eat more potatoes.
Horne's favorite variation is french fries; Buchanan favors scalloped potatoes. The society has even published a cookbook featuring 200 potato recipes, "Pass the Potatoes, Please" ($7.50, Society of St. Andrew, Box 329, Big Island, Va. 24526).
Yesterday's luncheon menu, by the way, included salmon, green beans, carrots and ... rice.
"Yeah. It was great," laughed Horne.