When Ben Vo opened grocery chain City Farmer’s Market in 2015, his goal was to create a destination for international ingredients.
The store sells meat, seafood and vegetables from countries around the world, but he said customers have been asking for one thing: water spinach, a staple of many Asian cuisines that has been illegal in the state for decades.
This need has become more pronounced over the years. One in ten Georgians is an immigrant, and Asians now make up more than 7 percent of the Atlanta metro area’s population.
After years of petitioning, legislative attempts and lobbying, the Georgia Department of Agriculture began approving the sale of water spinach this month. The state’s agricultural regulations are likely to be introduced later this year.
Water spinach is a long, leafy green with tender hollow shoots that complement the food cooked. It is called ong choy in Cantonese, rau muong in Vietnam and kangkung in Malaysia and Indonesia.
It can also sprout from fragments of plants, spread quickly, and grow in abundance even when left alone.
As such, it is subject to federal regulation under the Plant Protection Act, which makes it illegal to import or transport vegetables between states without a license. It is considered a “plant pest” under Georgia regulations.
“They are plants that we don’t want to go into the wild because they can wreak havoc on waterways,” said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. To protect the state’s waterways and native plants, the Department of Agriculture is looking for plants that have strict planting regulations and proven States that have succeeded in protecting the environment.
Florida is one of them. Farmers are there to grow plants safely by growing plants in greenhouses from propagated cuttings rather than seeds, thoroughly cleaning all associated equipment, and packing only everything on site in airtight containers.
But people have long found ways to smuggle water spinach into Georgia.
“We’ve seen people buying and selling it in suitcases in parking lots, illegal of course, and some people are also growing it illegally in Georgia,” Vo said. “This product is being treated like marijuana, you know?”
At first, Vo customers filed petitions in the store for legislative action against water spinach.
“The community started a number of petitions in 2012, 2013 and 2015 through the registration of customers entering the market, demanding certain changes or amendments to the law,” Vo said.
It finally worked.
Georgia’s Asian population has grown 52 percent in the decade that clients have attempted the petition. Demand for Asian food is also on the rise, Kathy Kusava said. As president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, she was an early advocate for the plant to be grown and sold in Georgia. As more immigrants come to the state, the community’s grocery needs have changed, she said.
“If you think about it, what if southerners weren’t allowed to drink sweet tea, or our Hispanic community wasn’t allowed to buy tortillas? For the Vietnamese community and the Southeast Asian community, water spinach is a very important part of their diet.”