Legislation Looks to Take “Palmettovore” Program to Schools

March 14, 2012

Investigative Reports

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School LunchThere’s no doubt about it: The S.C. Department of Agriculture is finding taxpayer-funded marketing and promotion more and more to its liking.

The department began such efforts tentatively at first. In 1972, Agriculture started the SC Certified Roadside Market program. Some 35 years later, it initiated the Certified SC Grown and Fresh on the Menu programs, the former of which included the heavily funded Palmettovore advertising campaign.

Now, more legislation is in the works to benefit South Carolina’s farmers and agribusiness industry.

H. 4200 would take the South Carolina Fresh on the Campus program statewide.

If passed by the Legislature, it would require the Department of Agriculture to create and maintain a program to encourage South Carolina schools to “serve locally grown, minimally processed farm food,” according to the bill.

Currently, there is a pilot Farm-to-School program operating in 52 schools around the state. Under the program, at least two South Carolina products are served in participating schools’ cafeterias each month, according to Becky Walton, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.

“The pilot program seeks to increase fresh produce availability to children and to encourage healthy eating habits in children, as well as to create an additional sustainable, steady market opportunity for SC farmers growing fresh produce,” Walton said in an email to The Nerve.

The program is a partnership among the agriculture department, the S.C. Department of Education, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, and Clemson University, Walton added.

The pilot program began in August and is being funded by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Holly Harring, South Carolina’s Farm-to-School coordinator.

According to the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry, the program will have many benefits beyond helping school children develop healthy eating habits, combating poor nutrition and reducing obesity-related diseases prevalent in the state.

In fact, the bill reads more like an economic-development measure. According to Hardwick’s bill, it would:

  • Strengthen local economies by keeping money within their area;
  • Create jobs;
  • Open a substantial new market for farmers; and
  • Provide beginning farmers with a consistent and secure customer base.

There is no appropriated state funding associated with the legislation, and participation by schools in the program would be voluntary.

“I’m not trying to create another big government bureaucracy,” Hardwick told The Nerve. “Agriculture Commissioner (Hugh) Weathers hasn’t said, ‘You’re killing me with this,’ and I talk to him quite a bit.”

One of the benefits of such a program is that it would help school children understand the link between the food they eat and the agribusiness industry, Hardwick said.

“This is an opportunity to make a connection between the rural and city populations, so we both understand each other’s value to the community,” he said. “Too many kids today have no idea where their food comes from. They think it just shows up in the store or on their plate.”

Harring said that Farm-to-School, if it becomes permanent through law, would seek funding from federal grants and private sources, rather than through state appropriations.

“At this point we don’t have any concrete estimates on what it will cost to get the program running statewide, but a lot has already been done,” Harring said about the proposed program.

“Much of the work that needs to be done was taken care of in getting the pilot program set up, such as getting the infrastructure in place in terms of farmers to distributors and distributors to schools,” she said, adding that none of the expense would fall on the Department of Agriculture, she added.

Still the money would have to come from somewhere, and while the bill’s language states that the program must “seek grants and private funding as appropriate,” it does not explicitly prohibit it from asking for or receiving state funding.

The agriculture department has come under fire from critics who contend that the state has no business subsidizing a single industry, particularly one the size of agriculture.

According to the department’s 2010-11 Accountability Report, agriculture is the No. 1 driver of South Carolina’s economy, with an annual impact of $34 billion; and it employs nearly 200,000 people.

But despite that impact, programs such as Certified SC Grown have been the recipient of much taxpayer largesse. Since fiscal year 2006-07, for example, the state has appropriated nearly $5.7 million to Certified SC Grown, including $555,000 for this fiscal year, Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture Martin Eubanks told The Nerve last fall.

Under the bill, the program would be required to:

  • Identify and promote local farm-to-school programs and advise agencies on needed actions and strategies to implement the South Carolina Fresh on the Campus Program throughout the state;
  • Establish a partnership with public and nonprofit resources to implement a public engagement campaign and establish a structure to facilitate communication between schools, school districts, similar institutions, farmers and produce distributors;
  • Encourage school districts to develop and implement school nutrition plans that purchase and use locally grown farm-fresh products;
  • Conduct workshops, training sessions and provide technical assistance for school food service directors, school and similar institution personnel, farmers and produce distributors, and processors regarding the availability of state-grown farm products;
  • Promote the benefits of purchasing and consuming fresh food products from the state; and
  • Require the Department of Agriculture to establish a South Carolina Fresh on the Campus Program website.

Harring said organizers have been able to get prices for local produce down to a level school districts were paying for food shipped by large producers from other parts of the country.

“The distributors got together and figured out that if they worked locally and bought enough produce locally, they could make it work,” she said.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.