Legislative change doesn’t usually start with a party or come with an official note of thanks. But then, the process for enacting the law proposed by Kristin Smith’s homeschool co-op is turning out to be something special.
As part of a project for the Alabama history and government class Kristin teaches, her 11 students persuaded a pair of senators to introduce a bill to name the sweet potato the state vegetable. The bill is progressing through the senate, and there is good reason to hope it will be signed into law soon.
“We could not be more excited,” Kristin said last week.
Missing Menu Item
The idea to engage state lawmakers on the issue stemmed from the class’s celebrating Alabama’s bicentennial in 2019.
“We had a big feast,” said Kristin. To highlight state history, the students filled the menu with items recognized as official Alabama foods.
They ate turkey (official game bird) and blackberries (official fruit).
“The state agricultural insect is the honeybee,” said Kristin, “so we had biscuits and honey.”
But the class also discovered something missing.
“What we didn’t find was a vegetable,” said Kristin, a fact which, frankly, left her dumbfounded given the proliferation of symbols that have gained the legislature’s stamp of approval. She asked herself, “How can we not have a state vegetable when we have a state outdoor musical drama?”
Taste for History
Not wanting to miss out on a teachable moment, Kristin asked her students to research and propose appropriate candidates for an official Alabama vegetable.
Some suggestions were ruled out early on. These included tomatoes (not actually a vegetable) and collard greens (not the most palatable).
On the other hand, said Kristin, “sweet potatoes constantly come up in Alabama’s agricultural history.”
By doing further research, which included interviewing someone with the Alabama Sweet Potato Association, Kristin’s students learned more interesting facts about the edible tuber. Alabama is among the United States’ top five producers of sweet potatoes, a crop which generates $9 million annually for the state.
But compiling all this information didn’t end things. Kristin decided there were still lessons to be learned.
There Ought to be a Law
Kristin asked each of her students to write their state lawmakers to lobby on behalf of the sweet potato. She said she wanted her class to see that civic engagement involves more than just wishing for change—it requires action.
“You identify the problem,” said Kristin, “but then you propose a solution. Then we back it up with research.”
The class soon received a letter from Senator Arthur Orr, who pledged in a handwritten note to ask fellow Senator Tom Butler to introduce legislation.
Orr told National Public Radio that he was unsure about the proposal at first.
“Well, I kind of scratched my head,” Orr admitted. “The more I thought about it and the students who had laid out their reasons,” he added, the more the idea appealed to him.
Civics in Action
Kristin’s class has since followed Senate Bill 98 as it has worked its way through committee hearings and votes on the chamber floor. It even has its own fiscal note (it’s not expected to affect state funding).
And the text of the bill includes something extra sweet in the form of this official note of appreciation: “This body thanks Kristin Smith … and her homeschool class for their excellent proposal.”
The bill is expected to pass. Kristin and her class hope to be in Montgomery when Governor Kay Ivey signs it into law.
Meanwhile, Kristin’s students insist their project has already proven especially meaningful.
“Now I really see how much of a voice we can have,” said 15-year-old Kyra Smith, Kristin’s daughter.
She added that she intends to stay civically active, especially regarding homeschool issues.
Classmate Jalynn Whitfield, 17, agreed. In part for her legislative efforts, Jaylynn was recently named one of 16 outstanding homeschool students by the Alabama Homeschool Capitol Day Committee.
“It was great to do something hands-on that most students don’t get to do,” she said.
Jalynn added that it also surprised her “how simple it is to reach out to your representative. Now I want to do my part as a citizen to make sure everything is going properly and going the way the people want it to be run.”
Kyra noted one other benefit she’s gained from the class project.
“I used to hate sweet potatoes,” she said, “but now I love them. Especially sweet potato fries.”