by Ray Linville
North Carolina produces about half of all the sweet potatoes grown in the United States, and it has consistently ranked as the top producing state for more than 30 years. More than half of the state’s sweet potatoes are grown in only three counties – Sampson, Nash, and Johnston. These counties in eastern N.C. are prime growing locations with their rich, fertile soil and their hot, moist climate.
Although the typical movement from farm to table involves a grocery store or chain, sometimes a food bank and its network of volunteers spring into action to provide sweet potatoes to families in need. Sweet potatoes are an excellent choice of fresh nutrition for these families that need to stretch their food budgets with healthy produce and supplement foods provided in other programs.
Geneva Gillis, who is typical of the volunteers who serve willingly and faithfully, was the coordinator of a recent “Mobile Yam Jam” in Hoke County for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern Carolina. The Food Bank is a non-profit organization that serves 34 counties in central and eastern North Carolina through a network of more than 800 partner agencies (food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and group homes). The Food Bank has branches in Durham, Greenville, New Bern, Raleigh (main branch), Sandhills (Southern Pines), and Wilmington. “Mobile Yam Jam” is the Food Bank’s name for sweet potato distributions.
Gillis’ agency, Avery Chapel Free Will Baptist Church Food Pantry, sits on the Hoke/Moore County line and is served by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. A truckload of sweet potatoes was brought in from Clinton in Sampson County and made available to Avery Chapel, which serves as an emergency food resource for families in need and is one of the 100 partner agencies of the Sandhills Branch.
News of “Mobile Yam Jams” spreads like wildfire – mostly by word-of-mouth among families in need. Gillis also has a call list that she uses, and the Sandhills Branch has an email list that announces a distribution to people who have requested assistance. In addition, announcements are made from local church pulpits and a gospel music radio station.
Gillis estimates that a truckload will benefit about 1,000 families and that the potatoes that they take home will last about a month. Last year she coordinated three “Mobile Yam Jams” – October, December and February – each one extending other food that her chapel distributes from the Food Bank. “It takes work but it’s worth it,” she said.
“Mobile Yam Jams” are one of the ways that the Food Bank distributes more than 6 million pounds of sweet potatoes annually to more than half a million people in its 34 county service area who struggle to provide food for their families. The more typical distribution path is through partner agencies that include food pantries (such as the weekly one that Avery Chapel operates), soup kitchens, and adult and children programs.
In addition to coordinating an occasional “Mobile Yam Jam,” Gillis also directs the weekly preparation at Avery Chapel, where she has been a life member, of individual food packages provided in bulk by the Food Bank. “We provide outreach to about 800 families a month,” she said. These food packages include “produce, bakery items, meat care packages, canned goods, fruits and vegetables.” Other members of her chapel assist her in the food pantry activities. “The oldest volunteer is my mom. She is 87. She helps to get bags set up and filled,” Gillis said.
Coordinating food deliveries for people in need is not a difficult task for Gillis. One reason is her own experience. “We were raised to give back. We were so poor – just didn’t know it. We thought that we were the richest because we had so much love,” she said about growing up in central North Carolina when her family at times struggled to make ends meet.
Another reason she volunteers is to celebrate another day on Earth, and she doesn’t want anyone to be hungry. She remembers when she was told in 1996 that she had terminally ill cancer and was given two months to live. However, she refused to accept the diagnosis and told the doctor, “I got only a flat tire. Let’s fix it.” Miraculously she recovered and has been leading food pantry activities in the Raeford area since then.
“We’re fortunate out here,” she says of the families who live in the Sandhills. “Hunger does not discriminate. When we’ve got food, it’s going out,” Gillis said.
Sweet Potato: Superior Nutrition for Families in Need
Providing sweet potatoes to families in need makes nutrition sense. Most of us learned when we grew up that the sweet potato is a very filling and healthy food. Because it is rich in fiber, it keeps us fuller longer. Much like citrus fruit, the sweet potato helps to fight infections and heal wounds because it contains a lot of vitamin C. Next, it helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels because its manganese content is superior. In addition, many of us eat a sweet potato topped with a pat of butter – also a good nutrition practice because the sweet potato contains beta carotene that the body converts to vitamin A, which is fat soluble; as a result, a little butter encourages maximum vitamin absorption. Compared to other vegetables, sweet potatoes are also high in antioxidants that reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Further, they are low in calories. A medium sweet potato has as few as 100 calories.
Sweet Potato Soup
The fastest way to prepare a sweet potato to eat is to heat it in a microwave (after pricking it with a fork to allow steam to escape) on a paper towel for five minutes or longer until soft. In addition to side dishes such as casseroles, sweet potatoes make excellent breads, chips, muffins, salads, soups, cakes, and pies.
Sweet potatoes combine well in soups with carrots, butternut squash, or lentils. However, try a simple soup that uses only sweet potatoes; this recipe makes four servings.
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1½ cups chicken broth
1½ cups cooked sweet potatoes
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup milk
1. Cook flour and butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan. Stir constantly until color is light caramel.
2. Add brown sugar and broth. Bring to boil and then lower to a simmer.
3. Stir in sweet potatoes and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 more minutes.
4. Puree soup in blender and return to saucepan.
5. Add milk and reheat soup.
6. Season with salt and pepper as necessary.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.