Sweet potatoes are everywhere.
They are on the cover of Cooking Light magazine, at the Batesville Farmers’ Market and, this week, in the tummies of a multitude of Batesville students.
The Sweet Potato Pride Project began when Margaret Mary Health dietitian Kathy Cooley decided to apply for a $1,000 National Farm to School Network grant to be used at Batesville Primary School and Batesville Intermediate School. “I knew that we had strong school garden and local foods programs.” Batesville Community School Corp. director of student learning Melissa Burton facilitated the process. According to Cooley, “It was a very coordinated effort between MMH and the school corporation.”
So this week the hospital and BCSC marked Oct. 24’s Food Day, “a nationwide celebration and movement for healthy, affordable and sustainable food,” Cooley reports. In Batesville sweet potatoes are the focus. There are several reasons that veggie was chosen. They are “cheap and healthy. You get the most nutrition for the least cost,” she points out. They are easy to prepare. “There are hundreds of great ways.” Sweet potatoes also are accessible because they are easy to grow in southeastern Indiana.
The project had three goals: increased exposure to gardening and cooking; ability to identify a new vegetable; and increased use of sweet potatoes in the student’s home.
“Once we got the grant, then we formed a team,” Cooley, the project leader, remembers. The partners began meeting in April and the next month the local chef and farmers were selected. In addition to Cooley and Burton, the team included MMH community health improvement assistant Ashley Morris, BIS principal Dr. Jere Schoettmer, BIS cafeteria manager Jane Tekulve, BPS principal Heather Haunert, BPS cafeteria manager Luettie Harrison, Big Four Café chef Adam Israel, Holton farmer Mike Swango and Oldenburg farmer Karen Enneking.
Potato slips (starter plants) were planted near the end of May in two very large flower pots in the BIS garden behind the school. Third-grade teacher Cindy Weisenbach reports, “Students tended the plants, pulling weeds, and watering them as needed. They checked on them weekly and observed their growth, and were amazed by how much they vined out into our garden with roots anchoring them down along the way. BPS teachers and students followed a similar timetable.
In June the two farmers planted enough sweet potatoes to feed about 950 students in grades K-5. After Israel “volunteered all of his services for the project,” the chef, Morris, Cooley and the two cafeteria managers made and brought sweet potato dishes to an August meeting and tasted them all. While both chosen for the school tastings were Israel’s recipes, “the other ones were all good” and gave the cafeteria leaders ideas on how to prepare the spuds. The managers are required to serve orange vegetables during a certain number of lunches, according to Cooley.
Israel prepared taste samplings of the two finalists – sweet potato medley and sweet potato mash – for the students in late September and early October with the cafeteria managers. During the taste tests, “the students were very receptive and I would say mature about trying a new food,” according to Cooley. “There were definitely kids who didn’t try it, but everyone was respectful of the importance of trying new foods. I was also encouraged there were a good number of children who said, ‘I already eat these at home.’ There were a fair number of kids who hadn’t tried them,” but seeing their friends shoveling down the orange taters made them more apt. to.
The BPS principal reports, “Students loved voting during the taste tests!” At both schools, the winner was the sweet potato mash.
So sweet potatoes were the stars of Food Day Oct. 23 at BIS and Oct. 24 at BPS. When children ate the mashed crops, their tables had decorations made out of – what else? – sweet potatoes, mostly by Cooley’s relatives. “We had pigs and porcupines and birds and monsters.”
Local restaurants have joined the party, making sure the spud appeared on their menus: Sherman House, baked sweet potatoes, Oct. 25-26; Pizza Haus, sweet potato fries, through November; Lil’ Charlie’s, sweet potato pie, scalloped sweet potatoes and sweet potato hash browns, Oct. 24-26; Big Four Café, sweet potato medley, Oct. 23-24; Margaret Mary Café, sweet potato medley and sweet potato and black bean stew, Oct. 25 lunch; Butcher Shoppe at Walhill Farm, sweet potato chips, daily.
Heil said the Sweet Potato Pride Project has helped students learn about the plant’s life cycle, parts and care. “We are trying to grow our own slips in the classroom.” At BIS, “we used them in math to discuss weight, length and circumference. It also tied in nicely with health and reading as we read articles about their nutritional value. Did you know that to take in the amount of vitamin A that is in one sweet potato, you would have to eat 23 cups of broccoli?” asks Weisenbach.
What has third-grader Eli Wilson learned about the vegetable that was surprising? “They can grow very big. I use to think that potatoes could only fit in your hand,” but the most gigantic one at BIS “had a circumference of 11 inches.” The third-grader said he would “probably” make the sweet potato medley at home, rating it “pretty good.” What amazed classmate Megan Meyer is “that sweet potatoes grow under the ground, and you have to dig them out to harvest them.” She imagines whipping up a sweet potato pie “because I’ve never had it before and I think it might taste good.”
Second-graders Jackie Aylor and Kaylin Hinners found out “you can start growing sweet potatoes from other sweet potatoes.” When asked if she would cook a recipe at home, Aylor answered, “Yes, but not every day. Maybe once a month.”
The initiative has encouraged kids to eat more local produce. Each family was given a $2 Batesville Farmers’ Market coupon and 107 redeemed them Sept. 14. Using the coupon plus more cash, Wilson and his family “bought a stone necklace, some flowers, a watermelon and some carrots.” The third-grader called the experience “fun, and it is good to know that you have someplace you can go on Saturday mornings and get stuff cheap.” Meyer purchased cantaloupe and a few sweet potatoes. “I liked seeing all of the fruits and vegetables and how they are different shapes and sizes.”
Aylor bought corn, while Hinners took home a variety of veggies. Aylor notes, “I like how vendors come from all around to sell in Batesville. That’s kind of cool!” Hinners believes the market is useful. “Some people can’t have a garden and some can’t afford to buy garden items from the store. The farmers’ market gives them a chance to get good, healthy food.”
Cooley and her team are satisfied with the project’s results. “We believe that kids just need to try new foods. It doesn’t need to be scary to try something new. We did it in a fun, encouraging and positive way.” She reflects, “We all need to eat better .... It’s really rewarding to see kids eat healthy foods and enjoy it.”
Are there plans for future projects like this? The answer is a resounding yes. “We have felt the enthusiasm from the students, teachers and community. We will continue to find ways to introduce new vegetables” to students.
Debbie Blank can be contacted at email@example.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.
Recipes for the two school finalists and the stew served at MMH:
Sweet Potato Medley
2 medium diced sweet potatoes
1 small diced Gala apple
1 small diced red onion
2 small diced carrots
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Place sweet potatoes in a small sauce pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender.
Add butter to sauté pan, then add carrots and onion and apple and cook until they are soft. Add sweet potatoes and combine. Add herbs, garlic and honey and coat ingredients evenly. Season with salt and pepper. Serves four.
Sweet Potato Mash
2 large cubed sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1.5 teaspoons cinnamon
Salt and pepper
Place sweet potatoes in a sauce pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender. Drain the water and keep sweet potatoes in the same pot. Place it back on the burner and turn heat to low to remove any excess moisture.
Beat sweet potatoes with an electric mixer, making sure not to over mix. If the skin was left on they will be a little lumpy.
Add vanilla, brown sugar, whipping cream and cinnamon. Adjust taste with salt and pepper. Serves four.
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Stew
1 tablespoon chili powder
10 ounces diced onions
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cumin
1.25 pounds diced sweet potatoes
4 cups black beans
1.25 cups orange juice
1.5 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1.5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
5 ounces frozen Swiss chard or spinach, thawed, or 1 pound fresh greens
In a large pot, saute onions in oil. Add sweet potatoes, black beans, liquids and spices and cook until tender. Add greens and simmer another 10 minutes. Serves 10.