SHEPHERDSTOWN — Burger King said it takes two hands to handle a Whopper. How many does it take to handle 45,000 pounds of sweet potatoes? About 600.

When the tractor-trailer driver slowly raised the truck bed about 7:15 a.m. Saturday to gently drop the nearly 23 tons of spuds into the street, the 100 people gathered there swooped on the pile like a bunch of buzzards.

It was the Great Potato Drop, a community volunteer effort to supply food pantries along the Eastern Panhandle. The Shepherdstown Rotary Club sponsored the drop.

Club president David Gross explained that 40 percent of fresh produce grown in America is thrown away because it isn’t Grade A consumer quality. The Society of St. Andrew sponsors a gleaning program to collect the produce and transport it to communities for distribution.

The tubers filling the street in front of Shepherd University’s Knutti Hall were wicked looking. One resembled a five-point star. Others were long and skinny. Still others were wide and fat. But they will eat just the same as the perfectly proportioned ones in any grocery store.

As music played a rhythm to bag by, people of all ages and races dug through the pile to fill 10-pound mesh bags. Children climbed atop the pile. While they were there under the guise of filling bags, their greater role was pushing the pile closer to the ground as the adults worked frantically below.

People kept arriving until an estimated 300 gathered around the pile. The crowd was three deep as people plopped mesh bags into 10-gallon buckets to give the bags body for filling. They dropped in potatoes, tied the bags and handed them off to others who carted them in wheelbarrows to the side of the street to sort into piles.

It was a well-trained spontaneous army of ants. Fewer than two hours later, the last potato had been scooped from under the last child to reign atop Sweet Potato Mountain.

The people stood up, looked around, dusted off their pants and hands, and pronounced it good.

A woman I’d never seen before but who had smiled at me earlier, came over to stand by me. She remarked how quickly the big pile had turned into neatly packed bags as Boy Scouts swept up the last of the dust from North King Street. She added that it was fun.

I said, “Yeah, this was almost as much fun as blowing up the bridge last year. What will we do next year to top this?”

She laughed.

In October 2005, the state Division of Highways detonated the old James Rumsey Bridge after building a new one across the Potomac River to connect Shepherdstown to Sharpsburg, Md. A great crowd gathered early in the morning to see that spectacle.

The world has lots of needs. A lot of them require money, but a lot of them also require people. Technology has changed every aspect of how people live their lives, but it has not found a way to replace the work done by two human hands.

Two human hands seem to be needed most when disaster or misfortune strikes. Human hands, not machines, are turning shells in New Orleans back into homes. Human hands, not machines, are reaching out to comfort those who lost loved ones at Virginia Tech. Human hands, not machines, are preparing food for the hungry.

The Great Potato Drop was more than Saturday morning exercise. It was more than bagging food for the hungry. It was building a community by finding a way to use two human hands.

To sponsor a potato drop in your community, visit

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2007 by Nerissa Young

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