On the day before August’s full moon, a small group of volunteers worked quickly to set up a pop-up food operation at Italian Square Park. They hauled out tables, stacked water bottles and readied stations of butter, sour cream and all the trimmings to heap onto home-baked potatoes.
Before they pulled out the first spud, a lineup of the city’s hungry already stretched from table to parking lot.
For 12 years, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, volunteers with the Serving Potatoes to Unrecognized Devas or SPUD Patrol have distributed potatoes to people in downtown Nanaimo. The numbers they serve depend on what volunteers are able to bring and most is out-of-pocket. The group doesn’t advertise or accept corporate donations, according to local coordinator Ev Schmidt.
“It’s just about people feeding people,” she said.
Schmidt created the Nanaimo patrol in 2002 after seeing the same initiative in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The idea is to make sure people on the streets are being fed by having volunteers directly hand out spuds. They bake the potatoes, bring butter, sour cream and extras and dish them out.
“It was such a heart-opening experience for me there,” Schmidt said. “It just really felt good to be able to connect with people that I normally wouldn’t connect with. I questioned whether there was a place for this in Nanaimo.”
She talked to people living on the streets and visited lineups at the Salvation Army to spread the word about the baked potato program. Nanaimo would also have used clothing for people to look through. It was well received and has been ever since, said Schmidt, who now sees as many as 100 people turn out for lunch. More than 50 men, women and children were at Italian Square Park Aug. 9, many of whom the volunteers greeted by name.
For Schmidt the program is all about connecting with people, hearing their stories and having empathy and compassion. Nobody wakes up and says they want to live on the street or be drug-addicted, she said.
Volunteer Wendi Bazant said it’s a good feeling to know you’re making a little bit of a difference and people are appreciative.
“It’s something they can count on,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is … if it’s raining sideways, we’re always here [on the Saturday closest to the full moon].”
Joe Ellis has been getting free potatoes since the initiative began. He said it’s a social experience and a chance to run into people he hasn’t seen in weeks or months. Then there’s the food: “Nothing jumpstarts your afternoon like a baked potato,” he said.
Nicole Frenette was grinning as she walked away with a potato heaped with all the trimmings. Everyone loves the program, she said as she pointed out everything slathered onto the spud. “It’s awesome,” she said. “Look at this – there’s butter.”
SPUD Patrol is looking for volunteers. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The next event is Sept. 6 at noon.