They come in countless varieties, from savory to sweet. You can bake them, boil them, mash them, fry them, scallop them, rice them or put them in a pie.

Last year, piles of them weighed down one end of St. Mary's Church in Cooperstown so much that they had to be redistributed to different parts of the worship space, because there were concerns that the church floor might collapse.

They're potatoes - and they're rather a specialty at St. Mary's. For 17 years, the parish has sponsored annual potato collections during Lent and in October, stocking area food pantries with thousands of pounds of the dietary staple.

The current collection is getting underway. The 2016 autumn potato drive brought in nearly a ton of taters, which were distributed among six food pantries in rural Otsego County and to Catholic Charities of Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie Counties, which added them to Thanksgiving basket for families in need.

Collecting potatoes is "kind a tradition in the parish," remarked Rev. John Rosson, pastor of St. Mary's.

Social justice
Father Rosson has been a big believer in social justice efforts since his early days of priesthood, when he would push the annual Campaign for Human Development collection taken up in parishes to fight hunger globally.

It's no surprise, then, that what he terms a "common inspiration" arose two decades ago that parishioners should focus some food drives on an item most struggling families can use.

Potatoes are "easy to store, don't require refrigeration and have multiple uses," Father Rosson recited. When some parishioners thought it "bizarre" to collect only potatoes, he gave them a history of the starchy tuber from the nightshade family.

"We have a lot of folks in the parish of Irish ancestry. [They know that] this was the staple that kept people from starving," noted the Rev. Betsy Jay, a Presbyterian minister who serves as chaplain for Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown.

Rev. Jay also spends a lot of time in the pews at St. Mary's, even speaking to faith formation students about the potato collection each year.

Potatoes were connected to suffering for the Irish during the 19th-century famine that occurred when that country's potato crop failed for several years. Highly dependent on potatoes as a food source, a million Irish starved during the blight and an equal number left their home country in order to survive.

Potatoes, please
These days, St. Mary's potatoes are welcomed by food pantries across the county. Antoine Bourbon-Parme, co-director of the Cooperstown Food Pantry, said that food insecurity is more prevalent in greater Otsego County than most people realize.

"Food insecurity" refers to either lack of access -- at least sometimes -- to enough food, or to limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally-adequate foods. A food-insecure family may be forced to choose between buying healthy foods or paying rent or other basic bills.

Feeding America, the country's largest hunger-relief organization, cites the annual food budget shortfall in Otsego County as $4 million. About 7,300 people in the county are listed as food-insecure.

Mr. Bourbon-Parme told The Evangelist that the Cooperstown Food Pantry alone serves 800 people every month.

"It's a rural county. There is significant need," Rev. Jay stated. When she talks to people at St. Mary's about the potato collections, she places potatoes on the lectern as a visual cue.

Because Otsego County is rural, there are many farmers among St. Mary's parishioners. When the collections roll around, they're generous in donating from their harvest. Local restaurants donate in bulk, dropping off several 100-pound bags to kick off the potato collections.

Children bring potatoes. The confirmation class chips in -- as, last year, did the grandfather of one confirmand, who gave a generous financial donation toward the purchase of potatoes.

Some parishioners bring boxed instant potatoes or canned varieties; others donate sweet potatoes. Five- and 10-pound bags pile up quickly in the church.

"The generosity of this area is heartwarming," Mr. Bourbon-Parme said, citing Father Rosson's and Rev. Jay's leadership in spearheading the collections.

Where they go
The Cooperstown Food Pantry got hundreds of pounds of potatoes from last year's collections, but Mr. Bourbon-Parme redirects many more of the tubers to some smaller food pantries that don't have easy access to fresh produce. Pantries in Richfield Springs, Milford, Hartwick, Cherry Valley and Rosebloom also received potatoes.

A family patronizing one of the food pantries usually receives five pounds of potatoes from the collection. A single person might receive a pound or two.

There's always room for the collection to grow - and, as the Bible says, man cannot live on bread (or potatoes) alone. Rev. Jay noted that there are Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches in Cooperstown, so she has approached the Cooperstown Ecumenical Council in the hopes of making the potato collections an ecumenical effort.

She'd like to see the other churches collect funds to purchase turkeys, adding one more significant part of Thanksgiving meals for hungry people. Father Rosson said other churches could each pick a different ingredient to collect.

Start with one potato, said the pastor, and you can end up feeding a family for a week.