May 2009

Want to be a Palmettovore?

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: Photography by anne

Hugh Weathers, Commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, was on Hilton Head Island for the Wine and Food Festival 2009 to help promote new programs for South Carolina’s food industry. CH2 had a chance to catch up with the commissioner for the latest news. A farmer himself, Weathers was obviously both pleased and passionate about the Department’s commitment to “home grown.”
You’ve seen this on menus in certain restaurants: “Fresh on the Menu, Certified SC Grown.” You may have seen this on certain foods in grocery stores: “Certified South Carolina.” Both represent the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s campaign to get folks to buy and eat locally grown food, whether it’s produce, poultry or fish. It’s an idea that fits perfectly into today’s economy and today’s taste for “fresh.”

“Our food expenditures are $6 billion [a year] and we [everyone in the food business in South Carolina] get less than six percent of that, according to one study. If we can pull more of that expenditure from within our borders, we’re driving agribusiness, commerce, from the demand side of the equation,” said Weathers. “The law of supply and demand never breaks down. We’re finding that out adversely with the national picture. Our job is to create demand, to make people aware, to create an education process to capitalize on that demand. When we do that enough, we create a few more jobs in Beaufort County, maybe some in Jasper County. One acre of a specialty crop for a restaurant could be a three- or four-thousand-dollar investment.”

The “Fresh on the Menu” program requires restaurants to prepare menus that include at least 25 percent “Certified South Carolina Grown” produce and products, when those products are in season. “The [restaurant] owners and chefs are tremendously enthusiastic about this. Everybody wants the program to work. You’ve got to get all these links in the chain called food service to work with you. We’ve had great support from the Cisco, U.S. Foodservice, Limehouse Produce in Charleston. We can’t change and create a new system. We have to work with the food distribution that is there and make them see the importance of it. I think we have. I’ve been pleased at the buy-in and support we’ve gotten from everyone,” Weathers said.

In turn, the department provides marketing assistance with print and outdoor campaigns with slogans like, “Locally Grown. It’s to dine for,” and “Nothing’s Fresher, Nothing’s Finer: Buy South Carolina.”

“We started [Fresh on the Menu] in 2008 in Charleston at their food and wine festival and kicked it off with 55 restaurants there. It’s gotten great momentum on the coast,” Weathers said. In Beaufort County, there are over 35 restaurants that have signed on. Twenty-five are located in Southern Beaufort County. To date, over 160 restaurants are participating statewide.

The “Certified South Carolina Grown” program is the Department’s effort to both brand South Carolina food products’ high quality and bring farmers into the economic loop the program provides. All grown products must meet the USDA’s #1 Quality Grade Standard or higher. It also includes food processing companies and specialty food companies, such as Annette’s Gourmet Italian Chili, located on the island, and Dunlin Place Bakery in Bluffton.

“We’ve got to create opportunities for them [small farmers and businesses]. We’ve got to educate them. A lot of the grocery chains now are requiring business models that weren’t there 10 years ago. Like food traceability, product liability. We’re trying to create an opportunity for large and small farmers. But there’s an ante, so to speak, to get into the game. You can’t operate like you did 15 years ago. The world has changed, but we still want to keep the same basics and values—that local is better,” said Weathers.

The idea that “local is better” was no more evident than the huge success the Bluffton Farmers Market experienced in the 2008 season. Thousands of Southern Beaufort County residents flocked to the growers’ stalls, causing such a traffic problem in an environmentally sensitive area (May River) that the market opened in a new location last April 23, on Lawrence and Calhoun Streets in old Bluffton. Last year, it was not an unusual sight to see local chefs from the area’s top restaurants making agreements with the local growers.

While the “buy local” movement has been around for some time, it wasn’t until after 9/11 that it took on a national scope. It spread from both the West Coast and Northeast as people began to learn that a carrot or a bunch of broccoli typically travels 1,800 “food miles” to get to the dinner table. As little as two years ago, the food miles for items bought in the grocery store tended to be 27 times higher than the food miles for goods bought from local sources, according to Sustainable Table, a non-profit organization that promotes local, sustainable agriculture on a national scale. But Weathers said that “Certified South Carolina Grown” product branding is making a dent in that number.

“I think 9/11 changed our attitude about a lot of things. I think the recession will change people’s attitude about things. The more we read statistics about ourselves being the fattest country in the world, I think folks are realizing maybe some change of their lifestyle is called for. We are not asking something life-altering. We’re just trying to influence their [buying] decisions,” Weathers explained.
The next step in the program, Weathers said, was to personalize the “Fresh on the Menu” and “Certified South Carolina Grown” branding campaigns. “If you wanted to support South Carolina farmers and you say, ‘Yeah I want to do all these things,’ then we’re going to let you call yourself a ‘Palmettovore.’ We are going to kick this [campaign] off this summer. It’s just a way for people to personalize what we’re trying to do,” Weathers said. The term is a take-off on the popular “localvore” movement, which took on a life of its own in 2000.

Weathers said “Palmettovores” can visit the department’s new website, www.certifiedscgrown.com, to find out what restaurants are participating in the “Fresh on the Menu” program and locate “Certified South Carolina Grown” growers and producers. There is also an automated menu showing what is in season, whether it’s beets or black bass, and the location of the grower or docks.
“There’s a world of potential just by gaining market share from within our own borders,” Weather said in reference to the economic impact these programs can have. “About150 years ago, we tried a little thing called independence. That didn’t work out. But maybe we can get it to work out a little better on food, supplying

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