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The Asian food staple water spinach is mostly illegal, but Ga. is changing its mind

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An Asian staple called water spinach is illegal in most states because it's considered an invasive species. Now a decades-long effort to make the leafy green legal in Georgia is succeeding. As WABE's Emily Wu Pearson reports, that change is a sign of the growing influence Asian Americans have in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

EMILY WU PEARSON, BYLINE: Thy Duong tosses a handful of jalapenos in a screaming hot wok and mixes them into a chicken ginger stir fry. He's the owner and chef at Bowl of Flames, a Cambodian restaurant 30 miles east of Atlanta. And he's excited that water spinach might hit his menu soon.

THY DUONG: We eat it a lot because it’s cheaper. You know, anybody can grow it and eat it. But once you plant it, it spreads. It grows everywhere.

PEARSON: And that's the problem. Water spinach spreads easily once it's planted. It's not native to Georgia, and that's why it's forbidden to grow it here. But that hasn't stopped a small black market for the vegetable, says Ben Vo.

BEN VO: We've seen people buy it, selling it in the parking lot, in the trunk. Of course they do it illegally. And some of them are growing illegally in the Georgia as well. The products being treated like marijuana, you know?

PEARSON: Vo owns City Farmers Market, a store that specializes in international groceries. He's been at the forefront of finding a legal avenue to sell the popular vegetable.

VO: The community in 2012, '13 and '15 started some petition through the sign up from the customer coming to the market requesting a certain modification or amendment to the law.

PEARSON: It finally worked. Georgia officials have agreed to import the crop. Water spinach is widely cultivated in Southeast Asia, where it grows in water or muddy soil. The tender shoots have hollow stems that float and can grow from just a clipping, and that makes them dangerous to waterways, says Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

GARY BLACK: They're plants that we don't want out into the wild because they could wreak havoc.

PEARSON: In the U.S., it's federally regulated under the Plant Protection Act, which makes it illegal to transport the vegetable between states without a permit. To control the plant, states like Florida and Texas have strict rules. In Florida, the plant is grown contained in greenhouses. It must be harvested before the shoots propagate, and all packaging has to happen on site. Commissioner Black says other states protect their environments while growing water spinach. Now it's time for Georgia to join them.

BLACK: Why don't we equip people and enable people in a safe environment so that it can be safe?

PEARSON: The policy change comes after Asian community leaders worked for years to bring the crop to Georgia. Over the past decade, Georgia's Asian population grew 52%, and Asians now make up about 7% of Metro Atlantans. What's also gone up is the demand for Asian food, says Kathy Kuzava. She's the president of the Georgia Food Industry Association and an early advocate for the plant to be grown and sold in Georgia. Kuzava says as more immigrants come to the state, the grocery needs of communities changed.

KATHY KUZAVA: If you think about it, if Southerners weren't allowed to drink sweet tea or our Hispanic community was not allowed to purchase tortillas - in the Vietnamese community, in the Southeast Asian community water spinach is a very, very important component to their diet.

PEARSON: Several Georgia grocers already got permits to buy the vegetable from other states and sell it in their stores. And Georgia-grown water spinach could be available as soon as next year. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wu Pearson in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.