‘Spud Fund’ gets potatoes to food shelf through village-wide effort

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Tim Finley, Vaughn Zittergruen, Maddux Eglseder, Gavin Holst, Jack Scherf and Linda Gardner smile after successfully loading potatoes as part of Gardner’s “Spud Fund” for the Clayton County Food Shelf. (Submitted photo)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


“It takes a village.”


That’s what retired Clayton County Sheriff‘s Deputy Linda Gardner said about this year’s “Spud Fund” effort, an annual fundraising campaign she leads to purchase potatoes that are then donated to the Clayton County Food Shelf in time for Thanksgiving dinner. 


The village Gardner refers to is the local communities, like Guttenberg, where she graduated from in 1973, and Elkader, where she moved in 1976 to work as a radio dispatcher at the sheriff’s office before becoming a deputy sheriff 14 years later. Gardner decided to stay in the small town, among the people she grew up with and where, at one time, she knew everyone’s name. There’s no need to search for a new village when the one you’re already in is home. 


As a young girl, Gardner learned firsthand about the village it takes. She grew up with three siblings and, being raised by a single mother, she was the beneficiary of food drop-offs and donations—the basic generosity of the community. It’s something that stayed with her. After she retired as a sheriff’s deputy in 2011, she took on another project, though the exact year is unknown.


Gardner started what was then known as the “Potato Project,” also referred to as the “Spud Fund,” around that time. The idea was spurred by conversations and her friendship with Clayton County Food Shelf Manager Utoni Ruff, as well as being involved in efforts by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elkader, which has a food shelf collection once a month. 


She wanted to help out and repay the kindness shown to her all those years before. Gardner  was acutely aware of the food shelf’s needs and how much it helps families around the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, Ruff indicated the food shelf provides food for well over 200 families for each holiday and, this year, that number reached 255 for Christmas. 


Recognizing an opportunity to give back, Gardner started a campaign on social media, namely Facebook. It’s a practice she continues even today, seeking donations for potatoes—real potatoes, though, not instant from a box. The mere suggestion was met with lighthearted laughter and readily dismissed as an option. 


For Gardner, only the real thing will do. They’re higher quality, versatile and simply mingle better with the holiday décor and offerings around the table.


Since the beginning, the project has relied almost entirely on the yearly Facebook post, word of mouth, talking to people and, of course, the village it takes to share the post and encourage others to donate. There are other unique ways people help the effort too, including employees at the court house who pass a Mr. Potato Head around the building every year collecting donations. 


The “Spud Fund” has raised over $10,000 since 2019 and, on average, generates over $1,000 for the effort. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Potato Project” endured, and donations totaling $3,000 provided over 1,300 pounds of potatoes to the food shelf. 


While Gardner collects the money, it is Ruff who typically buys the potatoes and stocks the food shelf, something she’s done for 35 years. It’s a calling she credits to being raised right by her parents, with a sense of empathy and compassion for the village around her. 


Around the holidays, nothing symbolizes the Christmas spirit like providing a complete meal for a family in need. 


“I don’t like to see people sad or in pain,” Ruff said. 


This year, Gardner expanded the “Spud Fund” effort to include both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it was not without some challenges. After fundraising was finished, Gardner had collected $600 for Thanksgiving and $600 for Christmas. As usual, Ruff arranged the purchase of potatoes, but through no fault of her own, the supplier was not able to fill the order. 


Initially, Ruff was going to purchase instant potatoes, but Gardner asked, “Who wants instant potatoes?” And so, with what Ruff called a “great heart,” Gardner set out to rectify the situation. By turning to her “lifelines”—the village of people she knew—starting with a phone call to Marjorie Finley. Her son Tim owns Fennelly’s Irish Pub in Elkader, and coincidentally, Gardner used to babysit him. 


The call to Tim yielded results. With $600 from the “Spud Fund,” he was able to get 1,200 pounds of potatoes. 


“They approached us and were in need of a large amount of potatoes. Ordering bulk items is something that our food service contacts allow us to do, so it was a natural way to help out,” Tim said. 


However, with one problem solved, another arose, specifically loading and transporting the potatoes to the food shelf. First, the 50-pound boxes needed to be loaded. For this, Gardner called on her “angel,” Central’s district secretary Angel Keppler, who has helped Gardner out for the last few years, “helping spread the word” on the fundraiser as much as she can. This year was no different.


“I received a phone call from Linda that ‘a change in plans’ was needed in getting the potatoes that had been ordered for the food shelf and she could use a little help,” Keppler explained.


In her role at the school, Keppler secured help on short notice, calling on some Central students willing to go to Fennelly’s and load the truck that would deliver the potatoes. Four students answered the call to help, becoming part of the village it took to make this happen. Maddux Eglseder, Vaughn Zittergruen, Gavin Holst and Jack Scherf showed up to help, and within 15 minutes, loaded the truck with 1,200 pounds of potatoes. 


“We wanted to help out our community,” Eglseder and Scherf said about getting involved. Zittergruen emphasized the importance of getting involved. Added Holst, “I felt it was a good idea to help out the community because the community does a lot of things for us, so it’s nice to return the favor.” 


Holst also mentioned his work on the student council and the food and clothing drive the group does each year for Shepherd of the Hills. Central wrestlers also held a food drive, collecting over 200 pounds of food for the food shelf. 


Ruff estimated about 25 people assisted in the “Spud Fund” effort in one way or another, which also included delivering the potatoes to the food shelf, unloading them and putting them in five-pound bags for families. 


It’s a testament to the community’s willingness to help and the village it takes so those in need can celebrate the holidays with a meal. In this village, they are akin to Ebenezer Scrooge, somewhat anonymously donating the Christmas goose. 


“Gardner is a guardian angel that is always looking out for others, especially those in need...I have gotten to know Linda through church and we’re lucky to have her in this community. She’s always lending a helping hand to those that need it most,” Keppler said. 

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