Joe Klaus, who oversees the food services at Colby College, says many Mainers go hungry despite widespread food surpluses.

“Having available food is not the issue. And when it comes to hungry people, the need is great,” Klaus said Thursday. “The issue is connecting the dots.”

One such unconnected dot came to Klaus three years ago, in the form of several thousand pounds of unsold potatoes sitting in a warehouse.

The warehouse was owned by Fedco, a Waterville-based co-op that every year sells about 400,000 pounds of seed potatoes along with seeds, bulbs and other supplies to growers.

Fedco coordinator David Shipman said the excess potatoes are used as animal feed if no one comes forward to put them to better use.

One member, Tom Roberts, who owns Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield and is a member of the Maine Harvest for Hunger, knew just what to do.

He called Klaus.

Klaus has two permanent reminders of what he says was an accident-prone boyhood.

The first is a faintly visible scar on his upper lip, caused by a mishap with an ax.

The second is his enduring passion for food.

When he got the call, Klaus and a co-worker drove to Fedco’s warehouse in Clinton and loaded the enormous pile of spuds into a box truck.

He then hauled them back to the Colby campus in Waterville and began calling the 25 or 30 local food pantries that he has worked with in similar situations. Some came to pick up their share of the bounty, while Klaus arranged for delivery to others. A dining services manager volunteered to fill his trunk with the potatoes to drive them to a pantry in Vassalboro.

In a matter of days, the potatoes had all been put to use, helping to feed people in need.

TRYING TO MEET BIG CHALLENGE

Getting the perishable potatoes to people who need them is just the sort of time-sensitive challenge Klaus faces on a daily basis in the dining halls of Colby.

In his 31 years with Sodexo, the company that provides Colby’s dining services, he’s dealt with disasters caused by fires, gas outages and blizzards.

But eliminating child hunger in the region is a much bigger challenge. Klaus has tackled it with all of his energy and talent, having directed 300,000 pounds of produce to food pantries, as a member of Maine’s Harvest for Hunger, a major player in combating hunger in the state.

Still, Klaus said, he is “small peanuts” compared to the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which performs a similar function at its Auburn location.

In Waterville, nearly one in four children is considered “food insecure,” meaning that they don’t have a regular and reliable source of food.

Since coming to Colby in 1998, Klaus has organized food drives and found low-cost refrigeration equipment for local pantries.

He has helped to raise both money and vegetables, the latter in the form of a campus garden that was begun at Colby in 2008 and which directs 1,500 pounds of vegetables a year to those in need.

CULTIVATING A NETWORK

Klaus knows the national food supply chain well, in part through regular visits to New England’s largest food hub in Boston, which sees about 60 percent of the produce sold throughout the region.

The nation’s food chain is rife with inefficiencies, he said, because of the uncertainty of what will happen between the time a seed is planted and the time the end result is sold.

The system for food to be sold is robust, typically getting food from a farm in California to a plate in New England in three days. But there is no well-developed system to deal with the byproduct of the inefficiencies: the food that is not sold.

“Forty percent of all produce raised never makes it to market,” he said.

Many factors contribute to that result. A hailstorm can pierce the skins in an apple crop, making the fruits unappealing. A farmer may be unable to muster the labor necessary to harvest the food when it becomes ripe. A very good growing season can seem like a boon for a farmer, until he realizes that the same boon has helped all of his competitors, creating a market glut that makes his food impossible to sell before it spoils.

Sometimes, good food is not quite good enough to meet exacting standards in the contracts of large retailers such as Hannaford and Shaw’s. Klaus said he recently wound up with thousands of pounds of 7-inch cucumbers, grown by an unfortunate farmer who had failed to meet a supermarket chain’s desired range of 4-6-inch cukes.

Klaus is part of a network of people trying to establish a supply chain between these often unpredictable events, and people who can’t comfortably afford to feed themselves.

“My goal is to utilize it before it goes bad, especially if it’s several thousand pounds,” he said.

In the same way farmers cultivate food, Klaus cultivates a crop of farmers who are willing to redirect their unused produce to those in need.

He constantly seeks opportunities to add willing farmers and suppliers to his growing list of contacts. Klaus said it is typically an easy sell because many in the food industry have a passion for feeding the hungry.

While he sometimes reaches out by phone, he said, he’s learned the impact is greater when he visits a farm in person.

Klaus also makes use of gleaners, or volunteers, including some Colby students, who sniff out and collect food while combing the nooks and crannies of the supply chain.

Thursday night, a small team of gleaners headed by Klaus pulled into the Waterville Concourse during the final minutes of a weekly farmers market, looking for produce that had not sold and was unlikely to sell.

The team walked away with several totes full of food, destined for places such as the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, the Vassalboro Food Station.

Klaus said he plans to take his efforts to combat hunger in central Maine to the next level.

He is considering establishing an area hub with cool storage capabilities, where everyone, from private vegetable garden owners to established vendors, can conveniently donate food for redistribution to those in need.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling – 861-9287

mhhetling@centralmaine.com