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Vt. prison inmates process holiday potatoes

Wilson Ring, Associated Press

Bins of potatoes wait to be processed Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt. Inmates are helping process the surplus potatoes so they can be distributed through regional food shelves in time for Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

WINDSOR, Vt. (AP) -- A number of Vermont prison inmates are helping some of the state's needy families by processing thousands of pounds of potatoes destined to become part of Thanksgiving Day feasts.

For the last couple weeks inmates at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor have been cleaning, sorting, weighing and bagging thousands of pounds of potatoes that will be distributed via food banks in time for Thanksgiving.

"There are a lot of people who could use the extra food for the holidays," said Matthew Mabe, 30, of Saxtons River who is serving a 4-year minimum sentence for a repeat drunk driving conviction.

Mabe runs a cleaner that helps brush the dirt off the potatoes before they are sorted, weighed and then bagged.

The project was conceived by the Morrisville-based nonprofit Salvation Farms that is working to "manage Vermont's farm surplus," said Executive Director Theresa Snow, who was helping process the potatoes on Monday.

On Monday during a visit by Gov. Peter Shumlin, Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito and others, the potatoes that were run through the processing machinery and bagged had already received a preliminary cleaning, to lower the dust level during the demonstration.

"What we have done here is created a partnership that will not only be about potatoes, but about hunger," said Pallito who recently toured a food shelf and heard of a food shortage.

"It's really a big win for the department and the guys that are in our custody to see that you can do things that are really productive, give back to the community and feel pretty darn good about it," Pallito said. "Around this time of year when so many families are faced with hunger, these potatoes are going to go right on the table of some people who really, really need it, who would otherwise have access to very limited food products."

The potatoes are provided by an organization called "Tuberville" that grows potatoes for donation in Vermont and Maine. The potatoes being processed at the Windsor prison are from Williamstown, said Ralph Perkins of Tuberville.

There's nothing wrong with the potatoes, but for one reason or another they might not meet retail supermarket standards.

Snow defines "surplus" as food that is unmarketable. "Most of it's cosmetic, most of it doesn't fit the right size for the market, some of it's slightly compromised in its quality, whether that's a blemish or it's a few days old," Snow said.

The inmates processing the potatoes are volunteers.

"I think it's an excellent thing they are doing here for people who don't have it," said Stan Wisell, of Brattleboro, in prison until the end of August on for DUI convictions. "There's a lot to be done. It's helpful to everybody. It may make a lot of people in here wake up, too, to be a little more careful on the outside so you don't end up here."