Shaun Francis, Extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences (SAFHS), has been leading the school’s recent efforts to “sweeten” the lives of Pine Bluff residents.


He currently oversees donations of UAPB-grown sweet potatoes to community organizations that serve citizens, including some vulnerable populations.


So far, SAFHS has donated around 1,200 pounds of the nutritious root vegetable to organizations including senior citizen centers, halfway houses and addiction recovery centers, helping feed around 230 people altogether. Additionally, the school donated more than 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes to the City of Pine Bluff for a recent event meant to encourage local participation in the 2020 Census.


Held Saturday, May 2, in the parking lot of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, the “Census Roundup” allowed citizens to easily participate in the census. Precautions against COVID-19 were implemented to protect the public’s health and safety.


According to Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, completing the census allows citizens to shape their community for the next 10 years.


“It will determine how much federal funding for services such as our hospitals, health care, fire departments, schools and education, and public transportation will be provided,” she said. “The census also plays a vital role in determining how many representatives from our area will be sent to Congress.”


Washington said the census process is designed to be easy and convenient, and on average, it only takes about 10 minutes to complete. This year, however, for the first time, many households were expected to complete the questionnaire online. Because a number of families in Pine Bluff lack internet access, the Mayor’s Census Complete Count committee started hosting Census Roundup events throughout the city. At the events, citizens are able to show up to designated wireless hotspots and complete the census in their cars using Chromebook tablets distributed by volunteers.


Washington said UAPB-grown sweet potatoes were given to participants of the first Census Roundup as a token of gratitude.


“The sweet potatoes were a hit and made a positive, healthy impact,” she said. “The families were excited by the fact that they were given fresh sweet potatoes that were homegrown at UAPB. We also gave each family a flyer that shared with them the nutritional value of sweet potatoes, along with several simple recipes. Even citizens who had completed the census came by for a bag of sweet potatoes. We are so grateful to Mr. Francis and his team for their hard work and generosity in providing the much-appreciated donation to the City of Pine Bluff.”


Over the course of donation efforts, in addition to the sweet potatoes themselves, UAPB has been providing recipes and practical tips on their preparation. Staff members of UAPB’s 1890 Cooperative Extension Program have provided administrators of community organizations with instructions on how to store and cook the sweet potatoes, which are an excellent source of Vitamin A and fiber.


“One of the organizations we regularly work with is St. John Alexander Tower, a living facility for low-income senior citizens,” Marilyn Burch, Extension associate-foods and nutrition for UAPB, said. “The residents who participate in our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) cooking classes received a donation of sweet potatoes, which provide a source of nutrients and help ensure their food security for the month.”


Covenant Recovery, an organization that rehabilitates the previously incarcerated and those recovering from substance abuse, received a donation of sweet potatoes. Phillip Etheridge, education specialist for the organization, said the donation allowed the staff to prepare healthy and nutritious meal options.


Jennifer Stewart is the facility coordinator at Sobriety Living Center.


“Our organization allows men who are released from incarceration to obtain a support system that will allow them to remain clean, sober and employed so that they can become productive members of society,” Stewart said.


Kitchen staff were able to utilize the sweet potatoes and the recipes provided by UAPB to make a variety of meals for the men.”


According to Marcie Johnson, drug court counselor, Pine Bluff Adult Probation enhances public safety by enforcing state laws and court mandates through community partnerships and evidence-based programs that hold offenders accountable while engaging them in opportunities to become law-abiding, productive citizens.


“Our clients took home some sweet potatoes, which helped them feed their families,” she said. “The donation helped extend their food budget. Plus, they were excited to try the various recipes they were given.”


The sweet potatoes were also included as part of boxed donations at a university food distribution event on May 14. The UAPB Lions Cabinet Food Pantry held the event to provide nutritious foods and ingredients to current UAPB students living in the Pine Bluff area. Along with their sweet potatoes, students received recipes and information on safe storage.


For more information about potential sweet potato donations, contact Shaun Francis at 870-543-0029 or franciss@uapb.edu. The availability of sweet potatoes for donation depends on supply.


The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.


— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.