Reading Eagle Interview

Originally Published: 8/30/2010

Ron Devlin's Kitchen Table: Potatoes-for-poor project grows


Walt Zawaski
Walt Zawaski, 56, of Richmond Township founded The Potato Project, which uses volunteers to fight hunger in Berks County.

 In Fall 2008, Walt Zawaski saw a television news report about a Midwest farmer who had a bumper potato crop and donated the excess to local food banks.

Zawaski, 56, an unemployed computer technician, got to thinking.

He had an extra acre near his Richmond Township home. Why not plant potatoes and donate them to Berks County food pantries?

And so, The Potato Project was born.

Last year, with the help of church groups and Boy Scout troops in eastern Berks County, 7,733 pounds of potatoes were harvested from Walt's little acre - and ended up on the tables of the needy.

This year, the project has been expanded to 6 acres - 5 on the grounds of Zion Moselem Lutheran Church. The Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was impressed enough to donate $1,500 to the project.

 As harvest nears, Walt comes to the Kitchen Table to talk about planting potatoes and helping the poor.

What is The Potato Project?

WZ: It's a faith-based ministry to address local hunger issues. Trinity Lutheran Church in Kutztown, where my wife, Linda, is a diaconal minister, is a sponsor. You always hear about missionaries going to places like Tanzania, Haiti and Mexico. We go all these other places, but we often overlook the needy right here in Berks County.

How did you go about it?

WZ: Well, basically, we carved up our acre and planted potatoes. Last season, we picked 1,400 or so 5-pound bags. This year, with 6 acres planted, we expect five or six times that many.

How did you manage to harvest all those potatoes?

WZ: At first, we didn't know how we'd harvest. We figured we'd go ahead and let God figure it out. Turns out we had a lot of help from Lutheran churches - St. Paul's in Fleetwood, Zion in Perry Township and Trinity in Kutztown and Topton - and Zion UCC in Perry Township. Boy and Cub Scout troops from Kutztown also pitched in.

What did you do with the potatoes?

WZ: We donated them to food pantries in Fleetwood, Hamburg and Kutztown. We also gave some to the Greater Berks County Food Bank.

So, how do you feel about the project?

WZ: The good thing is that all the potatoes stayed right here in Berks County. The sad thing is that all the potatoes stayed right here in Berks County, there was that much need.

You've expanded the project?

WZ: I wasn't going to do it this year. Then, the Rev. Paul D. Hansen of Zion Moselem showed up at our house. He asked if we wanted to expand the project. He said his church would plant an additional 5 acres of potatoes. I was pleasantly surprised, and we decided to do the project again.

What have you learned?

WZ: I just wanted to reach out and help my neighbors. But the need was bigger than I had anticipated. You sit and say, "How can I help?" It's easy to dip into your wallet and contribute money. But when you do the work yourself, it's more fulfilling.

What do you hope happens now?

WZ: I hope others will do it, too. That way we can help more people.

At the Kitchen Table, reporter Ron Devlin chats with Berks Countians whose experiences and accomplishments reflect the region's character and culture. He can be contacted at 610-371-5030 or