Certified SC Grown – Not Always What It Seems

October 21, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveThe goal of the Certified SC Grown program is to enable consumers to “easily identify, find and buy South Carolina products.”

Part of a multimillion-dollar effort by the S.C. Department of Agriculture, Certified SC Grown seeks to brand and promote Palmetto State goods. However, it would seem not everyone is up to speed on the program’s guidelines.

Several stores in the Midlands that advertise themselves as Certified SC Grown participants appear not only to sell a great deal of produce from outside the state, but in one instance didn’t appear to have any South Carolina fruits or vegetables.

A trip to a Wal-Mart store on Harbison Boulevard in Columbia by The Nerve earlier this month turned up produce from at least 10 states and seven foreign countries – some as far away as Chile and Peru – but, according to labeling, not a single piece of fruit or vegetable from South Carolina could be found.

However, right in the middle of the produce section was a large metallic “Certified SC Grown” sign.

Things were not much different at a Wal-Mart store on Bush River Road in Columbia. There, a “Certified SC Grown” sign was placed next to a display which featured eight bins: five with apples and one each with plums, nectarines and peaches. The apples were from New York and North Carolina, while the plums, nectarines and peaches were all from California.

That last item would be particularly galling to Palmetto State peach growers given that South Carolina’s state fruit is the peach, and 60,000 tons of peaches are grown here annually.

At a Wal-Mart near the Ballentine area in Lexington County, underneath a “Certified SC Grown” sign hanging from the ceiling were plums from California, kiwis from Chile, bananas from Guatemala and pineapples from Costa Rica. However, there were no South Carolina items in the immediate area.

produceAt a Piggly Wiggly on Devine Street in Columbia, the situation was somewhat better. Among the dozens of items available were several from Walter P. Rawl & Sons of Pelion, including collard greens, turnip greens and mustard greens; radishes, cilantro and parsley; and packaged produce, such as diced tomatoes and squash medley.

But even the Piggly Wiggly, which featured a large banner over its produce section touting Certified SC Grown products, had far more fruits and vegetables from outside the Palmetto State than within.

Among them: tomatoes, red peppers and rutabagas from Canada; apples, onions and squash from Michigan; strawberries, cauliflower and chard from California; rosemary, dill and sugar snap beans from Florida; and radishes from Arizona – not to mention items from Guatemala, Peru and other more distant locales.

Why does the Certified SC program matter to South Carolinians? Because since fiscal year 2006-07, the state has appropriated $5.655 million to the program, including $555,000 for this year, according to Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture.

The funds were initially appropriated by the General Assembly for the first three years, but now come from the Tobacco Settlement Fund.

Eubanks added that $9 million has been invested in the program by private industry, through the purchase of such items as signage, labeling and artwork on produce boxes.

In fairness to the S.C. Department of Agriculture, the agency can’t be held responsible for stores that position Certified SC Grown signs near non-South Carolina produce.

In fact, the department has a merchandiser – an individual who serves as a liaison between the Department of Agriculture and Certified SC Grown participants – who can contact stores to see if signs need to be taken down because there isn’t any South Carolina produce on hand, said Stephen Hudson, a spokesman for the department.

“These stores may not be doing anything intentional,” he said. “It may be a matter of them not taking the signs down once the produce is no longer available.

“Most products this time of year have already come out of the field here in South Carolina,” Hudson added.

Hudson said that he would have the agency’s merchandiser contact the above-mentioned stores to check on the amount of South Carolina produce each has available.

Some stores appear to be more cognizant of changes in their stock. Midlands’ area Publix stores, for example, have taken down their Certified SC Grown signs over the past month.

Part of the problem with keeping South Carolina products in stock, at least for Wal-Mart, comes from the sheer number of customers who pass through the megastore’s locations, according to Lakeyda Faison, manager of the Harbison Wal-Mart.

“We do a lot more volume than the average grocery store chain,” she said. “Because of that, we may have to go elsewhere to get what we need. It’s more important for us that our produce be fresh and be available.

“If we can’t get it in South Carolina, we’re going to go out of state to get what we need,” Faison added. “The most important thing is for us to have stock on hand for our customers.”

While it’s unrealistic for Certified SC Grown stores to have only produce from South Carolina given that items such as mangos, pineapples and bananas aren’t grown in-state, and other items are grown here on a seasonal basis, there is no threshold as to what percentage of items must be from the Palmetto State in order for stores to promote themselves as participants, Hudson said.

As long as stores have some South Carolina products, that’s good enough, he said.

However, many larger stores carry 100 or more items in their produce sections. To have just a handful of South Carolina-grown products under a Certified SC Grown banner may strike some as disingenuous.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 446-3431 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.