Enough about turkey. Time for a good potato story.

Jason Briggs is vice president of business development for VIP Tour & Charter Co. in Portland. He’s also a proud son of Aroostook County, where he grew up picking potatoes each fall and thus came to appreciate the value of a good spud.

Fifteen years or so ago around this time of year, Briggs got an idea: Rather than send out greeting cards or some other small token of appreciation to business associates and friends to ring in the holiday season, why not go with something a little closer to, shall we say, his roots?

Or, as Briggs put it last week, “Who walks into your office with a 10-pound bag of potatoes?”

So, all those years ago, Briggs called his old friend Bob Davis, who co-owns the Maine Farmers Exchange up in Presque Isle, to order a pallet of freshly harvested Maine potatoes.

A single pallet, we should note, is a ton of potatoes. Two hundred 10-pound bags, to be exact. So many potatoes that by the time he’d met all of his business and social obligations, hundreds of pounds still remained on the pallet inside the large garage bay at VIP Tour & Charter.

And so it began.

“I thought, we should see if the Root Cellar could use some, so they came down and took about four or five hundred pounds,’ Briggs recalled, referring to a food pantry on nearby Munjoy Hill. “And then I gave the rest to the soup kitchen” on Preble Street in Portland.

The next year, Briggs ordered two pallets. The year after that, three.

“Well, this is fun,” he told himself as, each year, the bus bay at VIP filled up with potatoes and, within days, they were dispatched to food pantries, soup kitchens and other social service organizations throughout southern Maine.

“It’s greatly appreciated,” Don Morrison, operations manager for Wayside Food Programs, said last week after picking up the second of two tons of potatoes from Briggs. “We accept every donation – no matter how big or small.”

Briggs, generous as he’s been with his time and, when necessary, his wallet, has not done it alone. The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, in which he has long been active, over the years has provided funding and logistical support through its own food pantry at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland and other churches statewide.

Last year was a particularly heavy lift. Maybe it was a miscommunication somewhere along the line, or maybe it was the fact the pandemic and all its ripple effects left northern Maine awash in potatoes with nowhere to go. All Briggs knows is that he expected a shipment of 5,000 pounds from his buddy Davis up in Presque Isle – and instead got 50,000 pounds.

“My God,” Briggs said in full panic mode as he looked inside the tractor-trailer rig parked outside VIP that day. “What am I going to do with all these potatoes?”

John Hennessy, director of public advocacy for the Episcopal diocese, was among those pressed into service to get the potatoes out of the VIP garage – the company mechanic had buses to service, after all – and into the community.

“It was like the dog that catches the car,” Hennessy recalled. “What do you do next?”

They rolled up their sleeves and got to work, loading the bags onto the cars, minivans and other vehicles that steadily streamed in and out of VIP until finally, the bounty was distributed. Through it all, Hennessy channeled his late Irish father, who came over from Ireland as a young teenager.

“When we were growing up as kids, he had all these stories about being hungry,” Hennessy said. “And every time I lifted one of those heavy bags of potatoes, I thought, ‘Dad, I hope you’re smiling – wherever you are.’”

This year’s potato haul was a more manageable five tons – all provided at no charge by Brian Guerrette of Guerrette Farms in Caribou. According to potato distributor Davis, it’s been that way for years now.

“No matter how many pallets I add on each year, Brian just says, ‘That’s fine. Just tell me what you want and I’ll have them ready,” Davis said. “And then Ross Express runs around and gets them – and the treat us pretty good on the freight rate.”

Charity can take many forms this time of year. As I write this, my inbox is already filling up with requests for “Giving Tuesday,” that frenetic day when every nonprofit in the universe needs my donation now more than ever. And you can’t get through a store checkout without being asked by a computer if you want to “round up” on behalf of this, that or the other thing.

Then along comes a guy like Briggs, who lived in The County long enough to know the value of a good potato – and has lived in southern Maine long enough to know that here, like everywhere, not everyone has enough to eat.

It’s enough to make the “two Maines” vanish into one.

“He’s from Presque Isle,” boasted longtime friend Davis at the farmer’s exchange. “We exported him to Portland.”


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