A Homegrown Campaign To Recognize The Sweet Potato In Alabama

Feb 13, 2020
Originally published on February 13, 2020 4:29 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

States claim all kinds of foods as their own. Louisiana has a state meat pie.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Maryland has a state crustacean.

CORNISH: South Dakota has a state bread.

KELLY: And a new bill up for consideration next week in the Alabama Senate proposes a state vegetable, the sweet potato.

CORNISH: Around 12,000 tons of sweet potatoes were grown last year in Alabama. But this isn't a politician's ploy to woo the state's sweet potato farmers. The bill's got a more organic source.

KYRA: My mom makes the best sweet potato casserole.

KELLY: That is Kyra. Her mom, Kristin Smith, is a homeschool teacher in Madison County. Her students were planning a dinner to honor Alabama's bicentennial birthday, and they wanted to incorporate Alabama's state foods, but there was no state vegetable. So the students debated which vegetable best represents their state.

KYRA: Greens, turnips and collards came up quite a bit. But to be honest, no one in our class likes them, so we decided to move on.

CALEB: Okra was kicked out of the choice.

KYRA: Oh, yeah. Caleb is very upset that we didn't pick fried okra.

KELLY: Instead, they settled on a popular favorite.

KYRA: Sweet potatoes kept coming up in our research of Alabama's top agricultural crops. Just - it's a really good vegetable. It tastes really good now. It's so hardy. There's so many different benefits that come from it.

CORNISH: Kristin Smith says that what started out as something silly turned into what she calls a teachable moment for her students. She instructed them to write up a proposal to their respective state legislators.

KRISTIN SMITH: So it was important to me, for one thing, that they know how to find who their representatives are.

ARTHUR ORR: Well, at first, I kind of scratched my head, if I have to be honest (laughter).

KELLY: That's Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr. He says he was surprised when the students' proposal came across his desk. But the idea stuck with him.

ORR: The more I thought about it and the students who had laid out their reasons - and they are certainly good ones - did a little research in that we do not have a declared state vegetable.

KELLY: Orr says he expects the bill will pass, though it may not be a top legislative priority.

CORNISH: Still, sweet potatoes have a rich history in Alabama. Joel Sirmon is a sweet potato farmer in Baldwin County, Ala. He's been growing the crop for over 35 years.

JOEL SIRMON: In the olden days, I've heard my daddy and the older people say they used to, you know, if they went working, they'd put a couple of sweet potatoes in their pocket. And that's what they ate. You could take it on the go, you know?

KELLY: Versatile, delicious, teacher Kristin Smith says there's a lot to love about the sweet potato.

SMITH: Our dog is on a sweet potato and salmon dog food because of her skin. I mean, that's just how incredible the sweet potato is for, well, everybody.

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