A local celebration of the sweet potato

This Towson University professor wants the vegetable on your plate twice a week -- not just twice a year



Early American settlers and Revolutionary soldiers feasted on them because it was all they had, and most people have a serving of them on holidays.

Now there's a day set aside for celebrating the Ipomoea batatas, or sweet potato, thanks to a Towson University professor of health who has a farm in the Stewartstown, Pa., area.

The fourth Saturday of September is now National Sweet Potato Day.

"I just got an official Pennsylvania Senate ruling declaring ... National Sweet Potato Day," said Jack Osman, who took a short break from teaching health sciences at Towson University to spend the day as a guest at Tuskegee University.

Tuskegee was home of the celebrated agricultural biologist George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of uses for sweet potatoes, as well as peanuts and soybeans in an attempt to save the soil of Southern farms in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

This year, Osman again held what has become an annual Sweet Potato Festival during the latter part of September at his Wellness Farm in Shrewsbury Township, Pa., near Maryland Line. The festival featured live music and treats made from sweet potatoes. Neighbors and youths from Stewartstown Presbyterian Church helped with serving the fries and pancakes and preparation of sweet potato snowballs.

Osman's background as an educator began with a bachelor's degree in health and physical education from West Chester State College in Pennsylvania in 1965. He went on to earn a master's in health education from the University of Maryland, a doctorate in health education from Ohio State University -- and a second master's, this one in theology, from St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore.

Osman first became interested in the sweet potato one fall when he was on sabbatical from Towson. He grew a few in his garden as an experiment. He noticed they took root and gravitated from where he planted them to the horse manure pile -- and thrived. He was curious about that and went on the Internet to learn more about the vegetable. (North Carolina is the main grower in this country, with 558 million pounds produced in 2001.)

Amazed at the amount of nutrition in the neglected spud, he discovered that he also liked the taste of the ones he had grown.

He acknowledges that broccoli is his No. 1 choice for the most nutritious vegetable.

"The sweet potato is definitely one of the top five. It's also an anti-cancer food in which the free radicals are attacked by the vitamin C, the vitamin A and the vitamin E, and we are finding more and more evidence that the purple-fleshed sweet potato also with its anthrocyanin is another" preventive, he said.

While Vardaman, Miss., claims to be the Sweet Potato Capital of the World, Osman has hopes that Stewartstown will take its place in the spud pantheon.

He and his wife, Beverly, have more time now that their three children are in college. Beverly teaches kindergarten at Fawn Grove Elementary. Osman's work is cut out for him: sweet potato promotion.

Osman wants people to eat the sweet potato twice weekly, not just for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

To that end, he created a George Washington Carver sandwich in honor of the Tuskegee scientist. (He said that he and Carver share faiths -- they are both Presbyterians -- and the habit of wearing of a flower in their lapels during teaching. And both became plant specialists.)

The Carver sandwich has peanut butter on one side, marshmallow fluff, sliced sweet potato in the center, and cinnamon and brown sugar. "Even the children seem to like it," said Osman, "so how many people eat veggies in their sandwiches?"

The plants Osman grows on his farm are not organic. They are preyed upon by the corn wireworm, and Osman said he knows no way to get rid of the pest without chemicals.

That might be a topic for his National Sweet Potatoes Collaborators Group, which has a yearly meeting that attracts 50 to 75 scientists, plant growers and geneticists to Louisiana State University. "It's amazing when you start going around the country and meet people and hear their stories. Color doesn't matter, nationality doesn't matter," Osman said.

The sweet potato is the world's seventh-most important crop in developing countries, according to Osman. The crop yields more nutrients than any other crop per acre and is loaded with beta carotene. It's a good source of antioxidants, as well as fiber and iron.

The sweet potato has a low glycemic index rating and will not cause a rise in blood sugar in persons with diabetes.

Osman has coined a motto -- "The sweet potato: the intelligent choice."

Plants take to the soil in the area, with the help of recyclable plastic mulch which holds in moisture and keeps temperatures warm enough. About 90 to 100 days of warm weather are needed, but the sweet potato is drought-tolerant after a couple of weeks, said Osman.

"They are a little sweeter if you cure them when the enzymes are released," he said, but the first ones he cooked were delicious.

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