September 18, 2020

By ELISSA DEN HOED

Outside the local grocery store, you’re bombarded by a man wearing a plastic potato-decorated burlap sack, asking you to buy a 10-lb. bag of spuds. What is going on here? Relax, it’s the annual February Potato Blitz, which has been running nearly 20 years, collecting potatoes for use in the House of Friendship’s 19 charity programs.
The goal of this year’s blitz is 200,000 lb., 30,000 lb. more than last year due to increased need in the region for food assistance.
The month-long event kicked off on Jan. 27 with the 15th annual Don Cameron Potato Night during a Kitchener Rangers game at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. Cameron, the Rangers’ play-by-play announcer for over 30 years, donned a burlap vest made by volunteers at the Kingsdale Community Centre.
By the end of the night, Rangers’ fans had donated approximately 4,500 lb. of potatoes and $6,000 in cash (to be used to buy another 40,000 lb. of spuds). Between Rangers fans and Zehrs, the Potato Night sponsor, this year’s Potato Blitz got off to an impressive start at 85,000 lb. in one night.
On Saturday the region-wide Supermarket Blitz was held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 26 local grocery stores, including Zehrs, Food Basics, Fresh Co., Valu-Mart and Central Fresh Market stores. Last year volunteers from 12 local churches helped collect potatoes and cash.
In the past volunteers have dressed for the occasion in everything from green and white striped top hats to “flowing burlap gowns,” according to the House of Friendship’s WordPress blog.
The man with the potato sack costume is John Lambert (a.k.a. King Spud), credited as the creator of the Potato Blitz. House of Friendship executive director John Neufeld said the blitz originated with “a challenge (Lambert) received at church.”
According to Lambert’s wife, Kathleen, history was made when their reverend at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in downtown Kitchener, Grant MacDonald, “issued a challenge: ‘Who will collect potatoes for the House of Friendship?’”
Next Saturday, the Lamberts went to the Beechwood Zehrs to ask people for potato donations. By lunch, they had such an overwhelming amount of potatoes, they called Rev. MacDonald for help. “It was amazing,” Kathleen Lambert said, about the generous outpouring from people. “It’s awesome.”
This year King Spud will be at the Beechwood Zehrs, “stuffing the Faith FM Smart Car with as many spuds as he can get his hands on,” House of Friendship development director Christine Rier said in an email.
When asked about the origin of his nickname, Lambert said, “Grant (MacDonald) called me King Spud – and it stuck.” To go with his handle he had a burlap robe made, which he wears during the Supermarket Blitz. He likes to tell shoppers, “Buy a bag of potatoes and we’ll gladly take them off your hands.”
The House of Friendship’s goal was to collect 100,000 lb. during the Supermarket Blitz, and rely on donations made at the Community Potato Lunch – as well as school, church and business potato drives – to provide the rest.
Of the 170,000 lb. collected last year, 110,000 went to the emergency food hamper program, 24,000 to Christmas hampers and 10,000 to the men’s hostel on Charles Street.
The potatoes that can’t be used immediately are stored in an underground cellar at Steckle Heritage Farm in Kitchener.
A long-time volunteer said on the House of Friendship’s blog, “Potatoes are a basic food for so many – what better product to collect to show this. The spud is not glamorous or pretty, but beautiful in that it satisfies a basic human need – food.”
According to Neufeld, “House of Friendship believes strongly that there is no ‘them,’ there is only ‘us.’ We are all part of the same community and one person’s loss diminishes all of us.”
Something new started last year, and continuing this year, is the Soup Idol, a competition for the best potato soup. The winner will be announced at this year’s Community Potato Lunch on Feb. 24 at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, from noon to 1 p.m. All are welcome to come.
Until then, the blitz continues. There’s still time to add your potatoes to the pile. Check out www.houseoffriendship.org/event_potatoblitz.html. You can also call the House of Friendship at 519-742-8327.