Memphis, TN

My Entire City Was Sent Mystery Potatoes

Jill Fredenburg

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glass bowl with instant mashed potatoesPhoto by Rachel Loughman on Unsplash

These marketing spuds meant more about us than we initially realized.

My hometown city of Memphis is famous for Elvis, Beale Street, The Grizzlies, and barbecue. This place has given so much more to our country, but these are what the bulk of people travel here to experience. When my husband and I moved back after spending a few years in Arlington, VA, I didn’t expect to get a packet in the mail to remind me of one of the huge discrepancies between this city and the one we had just left.

My husband opened our mailbox in late January and found a large sample of instant potatoes.

We weren’t the only folks scratching our heads and trying to remember if we put in a rogue Amazon order. Hopping on Twitter and typing in “mashed potatoes” brought me to a few confused users facing the same pantry produce dilemma.

Screenshot provided by author

Some, like me, didn’t understand how we got on a seemingly random mailing list for potatoes.

Screenshot provided by author

Others reveled in having another claim to fame for our city.

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Screenshot provided by author

My favorite find alerted me to the fact that this was, before all else, a marketing campaign geared towards attracting or reminding us of the ease of using a product like this.

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Screenshot provided by author

Following the hashtag #MashedinMemphis pulled up less than a page of 280-character or fewer posts by Memphians advertising Idahoan to the rest of the internet. The social media marketing strategy here didn’t create an incredible amount of online buzz, but it left me intrigued. Why Memphis?

Idahoan Foods, a producer of instant mashed potatoes and other dehydrated potato products, declared Memphis the “2020 Mashed Potato Capital of America.” The company said Memphis eats more Idahoan Mashed Potatoes than any other city in the United States, with this population of around 650,000 individuals consuming more than 8.5 million servings of these instant potatoes in the past year.

Why Did We Get Mashed Potatoes in the Mail?

To show appreciation to our city, Idahoan Foods delivered a surprise pouch of Idahoan Buttery Homestyle Mashed Potatoes, thank you note and all, to more than 300,000 Memphis households (all registered home addresses in the city). All this because Memphians are nearly twice as likely to purchase this product than the average person.

What halted my confusion about finding potatoes, where there should have been ModCloth ads and bills, was the printed announcement that Idahoan also plans to donate 250,000 servings to our mid-south food bank in addition to these mailed samples. Instant potatoes make a lot of sense.

The CEO of Idahoan Foods said in a press release that we Memphis folks have:

“…cracked the code on how to get a quick dinner on the table without sacrificing flavor and quality. Stocking them up for National Potato Lovers Month is our way of saying thank you to a community that has helped us become the company we are today.” — Drew Facer, President and CEO

We do all love a quick dinner, but I wonder how much of our instant potato-purchasing has less to do with a celebration of dehydrated flavor and quality side and more to do with the fact that food deserts are becoming a major issue for cities, like Memphis, with impoverished populations. We have many areas that are considered food deserts, such as Binghampton, South Memphis, and North Memphis, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options, like fresh fruits and vegetables, is limited or completely removed because grocery stores are too far away or inaccessible by public transportation.

Nowhere Close To Pick a Potato

In a one-mile radius in (majority white) Midtown Memphis, there are three full-scale grocery stores. As you move outside of this area into areas such as Orange Mound, Whitehaven, and Frayser in South or North Memphis, however, the stores are limited to the dollar and corner stores selling overpriced basic groceries such as white bread and milk.

Memphis’s poorest zip codes —38126, 38105, 38108, and 38106 —are a majority Black communities and have an average median household income of $19,107 a year. These areas are highlighted on the USDA’s atlas in green, indicating people living in that census tract are low-income and live between 1-10 miles from a grocery store.

Healthy food retailers do more than offer fresher fruits and vegetables. These hubs serve as economic anchors for further commercial revitalization, local job creation, tax revenue, among other development outcomes. The instant potatoes might not be a quirky or fun element of living in Memphis, but an indicator that city officials aren’t working hard enough to prevent grocers from closing or encouraging new business in under-served areas.

I looked for the Idahoan Buttery Homestyle Mashed Potatoes and was able to find them at Kroger for $1.25 for four servings. Idahoan products are also available at the more common Dollar Generals throughout the city which, unlike Kroger, don’t carry a $3.99 10-lb bag of russets that would make close to 20 servings. In basic math terms, those living closer to Dollar Generals are paying $0.31 for a serving of dehydrated produce in a package while those with access to fresh produce in more affluent parts of the city have access to only about $0.20 for a serving of potatoes mashed fresh at home. Folks in food deserts are paying more for less to eat.

These Mystery Potatoes Mean More Than What We See on the Surface

For many people, the reality of food deserts isn’t something that can be ignored until some powdered root vegetable shows up in their mailbox. Idahoan is encouraging recipients to share how they’re enjoying their free instant potatoes on social media using the hashtag #MashedInMemphis. I don’t blame them for marketing to us in this way and am happy to have a free side dish for the next few nights.

I do, however, hope we can continue to call attention to and work for policy changes to mitigate the root of this possible reason Memphis is the Mashed Potato Capital of America.

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I am a Memphis filmmaker and the author of LGBTQ+ Revolution 2.0. My articles usually involve sexuality, relationships, self growth, and empowerment. I am also an occasional YouTube content creator 🏳️‍🌈 https://linktr.ee/JillFredenburg

Memphis, TN
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