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Flavor 11: Sweet Potatoes

October 26, 2014

When I first moved to Asheville, I was warned to keep my distance from the Pisgah View Apartments. "It's a housing project," a neighbor told me, almost whispering. "You know, low income."

In the Pisgah View Peace Garden right next to the apartments, however, the most notable danger seems wanting to linger past my next appointment. I'm engrossed in birdsong, flowers, and fragrant, deeply breathable air — not to mention the insights of my hosts, garden co-managers Sir Charles Gardner and Carl Johnson.

If Gardner and Johnson had to pick one crop as their specialty, they'd have to go with sweet potatoes. They grow both the standard orange Beauregard variety and O'Henrys, which are white inside and out. Johnson thinks the white and orange varieties taste the same — only, he's never used the O'Henrys in his favorite sweet potato dish, sweet potato pie.

Why grow sweet potatoes? They're a superfood. "I think it's one of the top foods that you could eat," says Johnson. One medium sweet potato contains over 200 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of Vitamin A, over 50 percent of the RDA of Vitamin C, and over 30 percent of the RDA of manganese, copper, pantothenic acid, and vitamin B6. It also packs a big punch of potassium, calcium, and fiber.

Even better, sweet potatoes do very well here without coddling. Unlike greens, for instance, the gardeners can plant the sweet potatoes and weed them once, and the tubers will pretty much do the rest of the growing without assistance.

The Pisgah View Peace Garden was the vision of Robert White, who founded it in 2006 in what was then a softball field. White saw it at first as just a gardening endeavor, but soon realized how it could be a social agency as well, helping low-income residents earn money and improve their health.

With the help of local NGO Green Opportunities, the garden has now expanded to two other locations in Asheville serving low-income populations: Hillcrest Apartments and the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center. Together, these enterprises make up Gardens United.

Gardner and Johnson, who grew up in public housing and currently reside at the Pisgah View Apartments, are the only full-time employees of Gardens United. The farmers practice organic gardening, start to finish. "That's what makes this a full-time job," says Johnson. They grow a wide variety of crops, including, in the fall season, okra, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, collards, lettuce, beets, and carrots.

They sell produce at farmer's markets and also give it away to needy members of the community. Pisgah View residents are free to come and take what they need — all Gardner and Johnson ask is that they also help out in some way. If residents contribute enough, they may even land themselves a job.

"There's a lot of people in these neighborhoods that are limited [in] what they can do," says Johnson. Many residents, for instance, have criminal records. "It gives them an gain a sense of pride, and some ownership over what's going on in their neighborhoods. That's real important, cause a lot of people feel left out. So we give them that outlet, give them an opportunity to come and learn and eventually earn money."

A middle-aged black man with graying dreadlocks arrives with his daughter and starts helping Gardner weed the kale. "I think it's beautiful; I think more people should come forward," he says. "Why not come down and give a hand and do something with your mind, you know, to keep you going....?"

On my way to the garden, I pass several people coming from a convenience store just a couple of blocks away with what looks like beer or soda in their bags. I find myself silently passing judgment. Then Johnson points out that, like so much low-income housing in this country, the Pisgah View Apartments are located in a "food desert." The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income area in which urban residents live at least one mile from a supermarket (10 miles in rural areas). Convenience stores that carry mostly snacks and processed foods don't count.

As Johnson explains, with limited transportation options, "It's kind of tough when you need a pepper for dinner." Access to healthy foods contributes to the quality of one's choices. With the Peace Garden in their backyard, residents are now relieved of the problem of having to go too far to get their veggies. The sweet potatoes, for one thing, are ready for harvest.

Johnson and Gardner were raised eating sweet potato pie, and can't believe I've never tried it. Johnson explains how he makes his. No specific measurements, just eyeballing: a few boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg to taste. Mix and pour into the crust (Gardner prefers graham cracker), and bake.

With a mix of Beauregards and O'Henrys from the garden, I try baking a pie myself later that day, and have to admit, I think I might go with sweet potato rather than pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving from now on. It has a rich taste but not as much of a squashy character. And now that I know the health benefits, what's not to like?

Johnson says that working at the garden has benefitted him on many levels. He feels a lot better, physically, from being outdoors and eating healthier. And he loves passing on his knowledge to his nine-year-old daughter. "I think that's one of the most profitable things that a person can get into," he says, "is learning how to grow their own food...."

Census data show that African Americans are extremely underrepresented within agriculture as farm operators, particularly in organic farming. Johnson thinks this has to do with the historical memory of slavery, an awareness he believes persists in his community. "A lot of poor people seem to be resistant to this field work," he says, "just because of how things were." Johnson sees Gardens United as a way combat this stigma. With dirt on their hands and healthy food in their bellies, he and Gardner are showing folks how working the land can be empowering.

Eating fresh, organic produce may be considered a yuppie white pastime by some, but as far as Gardner and Johnson are concerned, that's an image that needs to be broken. One of their main goals is teaching others to be more aware of what they're putting into their bodies. Their second cooking demonstration, the PVA Garden Halloween Feast, is planned for Friday Oct. 31st from 4–6pm. All are welcome to attend. If citizens know what to do with food fresh from the garden, the co-managers explain, it will make their work of giving away produce to people who need it more effective. They may even be willing to give away their secret for making a fantastic sweet potato pie.

Support Gardens United by visiting them at the West Asheville Tailgate Market, hitting them up on Facebook, or picking and purchasing directly from the Pisgah View Peace Garden, located behind the basketball courts at 1 Granada Street in Asheville.