Although the past year forced many kids to skip the cafeteria line in favor of virtual learning and lunch at their kitchen tables, increasing vaccination rates among teachers and even school aged children means lunchrooms are filling up again. Just in time, the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission (NCSPC) recently released a new School Foodservice Video series directed at the foodservice sector in an effort to encourage cafeteria workers to incorporate more of the healthy state vegetable into lunch menus.
The NCSPC is a nonprofit corporation made up of over 400 sweetpotato (officially one word) growers along with the packers, processors, and business associates that support them. The sole purpose of the commission is to increase sweetpotato consumption through education, promotional activities, research, and honorable horticultural practices among its producers. NCSPC Communications Specialist CoCo Daughtry says that thanks to the six sweetpotato farmers that first chartered the commission in 1961, the commission has supported its growers and maintained North Carolina as the No. 1 sweetpotato producing state in the United States since 1971. The organization offers members education and benefits in the areas of food science, shelf stability, and best practices for growers. Daughtry says that the new videos are a way to celebrate this milestone 60-year anniversary, and that they have a number of other planned celebrations and events in the works over the next several months.
Daughtry recently sat down with the North State Journal to explain a bit more about why the sweetpotato is our state’s vegetable and the rich heritage behind this community of farmers:
NSJ: Tell me about the sweetpotato community of farmers and ag workers, etc.
Daughtry: The sweetpotato community in North Carolina has the best savvy and innovative farmers and industry leaders in the country. We are blessed to have a tightly woven ag community that is civic-minded and unwavering in support of their neighbors. This would include not only sweetpotato farmers and laborers but those in Extension, in research at the universities and of course our Department of Agriculture.
What kind of climate do sweetpotatoes grow best in?
The subtropical climate of North Carolina along with our sandy soils are the perfect growing conditions for sweetpotatoes. The majority are grown along the Piedmont area, but over half the counties in the state produce sweetpotatoes.
How did it come about that NC chose the sweetpotato as the state veggie?
In 1993, Mrs. Celia Batchelor’s fourth-grade civics class at Elvie Street Elementary School in Wilson, N.C. was visited by Representative Gene Arnold (since retired and former chairman of the Public School Forum of North Carolina). His visit inspired her students to become involved in their state government. These fourth-grade students, along with their parents, and teachers, began a letter-writing campaign to the State Legislature requesting that the sweetpotato be named the state vegetable. The entire community became involved in the campaign. After two years of letter writing and a lot of hard work, the bill passed in the General Assembly’s summer session of 1995. Our sweet superfood was declared the Official State Vegetable of North Carolina!
Awareness of the nutritional value of the sweetpotato seems to be at an all-time high. Is there a cult following, and how have you worked to promote our state vegetable?
I don’t know about a cult following, but we sure would like that! I can say that as health has become top of mind for consumers, we are seeing increased use of sweetpotatoes more than only at the holidays. In an effort to create a greater “following” of lifelong sweetpotato consumers, we set out to captivate them at an earlier age. In doing so, we had developed a K-12 curriculum set up in step with US Board of Education standards featuring sweetpotatoes as a tool for lessons. Coupled with that we have worked with NC Farm to School to create the video series you asked about earlier and have created recipes to use in the school dining setting.
Is there more than one use for a sweetpotato? What else do you make with them?
As the words in our jingle go: Serve up broad with a dip, or fried sweetpotato chips, sweetpotato pancakes, salads too, Bake em , broil em… good for you. That being said, sweetpotatoes are delicious served sweet or savory. We encourage sweetpotato consumers to step out of their comfort zones and experiment by using sweetpotatoes in smoothies, roasted in salads, on the grill, or spiralized to replace noodles.
Perhaps unbeknownst to many parents, school nutrition employees play an outsize role in our children’s day to day health. Nationwide, 100,000 schools serve 29.6 million students lunch each day, and in North Carolina alone there are approximately 15,000 child nutrition employees in our 115 public school districts. Daughtry says this year the commission came up with three original recipes centered around sweetpotatoes. These include Chicken & Sweetpotato Teriyaki, Sweetpotato Bean Chili, and a Sweetpotato Quesadilla. The recipes for these, along with a slew of other dishes, are listed on the commission’s website at https://ncsweetpotatoes.com/curriculum/school-food-service-recipes/