WELBORN: Working to bolster state’s local food production

By Katie Welborn, special to Statehouse Report  |  We choose who succeeds by how we spend our money. Every time we purchase food products from other states and countries, we’re not purchasing them from agricultural entrepreneurs here at home.

Welborn

Did you know that only 10 percent of the food that we eat in-state is actually farmed here? In South Carolina, we have a huge gap between farmers who are producing food to sell at retail prices at farmers markets, roadside stands and off of their front porches and farmers who are able to sell at wholesale prices to and through mainline food distributors to hospitals, schools, restaurants and grocery stores.

Reasons why it is difficult for farmers to break into these wholesale, institutional markets include: food safety standards that many distributors and entities require that place financial burdens on growers due to increased overhead; the quality of product many institutions require; and the added hurdle of aggregating products from many different farms to fulfill an institutional order instead of single-sourcing from one, large farm.

What’s working for farmers to overcome these hurdles?

Farm to Institution: The program is a collaborative partnership between the S.C. Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Environmental Control, Department of Education, Department of Social Services and Clemson University. The program’s working to provide institutions, like schools, with the skills and technical assistance to be able to procure, process, prepare and serve foods sourced directly from farmers in South Carolina.

Grow Food Carolina:  The state’s first food hub is a wholesaler of S.C.-farmed foods and essentially a service organization aggregating products from over 75 farms, working with them along the way on crop planning and food safety measures to bring them up to a level where Grow Food can then market and sell these farmed products into wholesale and institutional markets.

SNAP Healthy Bucks: Healthy Bucks was created through a South Carolina budget proviso in 2014. SNAP recipients who purchase at least $5 with their SNAP EBT card at participating locations receive $10 in Healthy Bucks tokens to purchase additional fresh fruits and vegetables, allowing more SC SNAP dollars to go directly into farmers’ pockets when they otherwise may have gone into Walmart’s.

Farmlink: South Carolina has lost almost 400,000 acres of farmland since the 1980s. This pilot program launched within the S.C. Department of Agriculture (SCDA) and matches farmers (many new and beginning) who need land with landholders willing for others to farm it. The SCDA staffer running the operation helped run a similar, successful program in Virginia.

The Produce Safety Act: This act establishes the authority of the SCDA to enforce federal food safety standards related to produce. SCDA’s utilizing federal funds and partnering with organizations such as Clemson Extension, S.C. Farm Bureau and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association so that farmers are equipped to handle the new federally-required food safety standards.

What more can we do?

Support Extension: Over the years, Clemson has seen budget cuts limiting their capacity to meet the demands of farmers in S.C. seeking technical assistance. With Clemson’s ask of the state for funds to hire more agents, there’s hope that some of these voids will be filled and there will be room to hire agents specialized in diverse production methods such as organic production and (as of this year) industrial hemp.

Revisit S.C.’s Making Small Farms Big Business Plan: Four years ago, ag organizations like the S.C. Farm Bureau, SCDA, Carolina Farm Stewardship and others came together to craft S.C.’s Making Small Farms Big Business Plan. The plan maps infrastructure necessary for food-producing farmers to grow and thrive in S.C. While pieces of this plan have been implemented, the overall plan for the state to have food hub infrastructure built and connected across all of S.C. is yet to be seen.

Reimbursement legislation: Institutions utilizing government funds for food purchases could be supporting more farmers here at home. With infrastructural pieces lacking to bring farmers to scale to sell at wholesale prices, local products are going to be more expensive for institutions, such as schools, to procure. Some states have explored reimbursement legislation, for example, reimbursing a school a few cents per meal served incorporating a state-grown product. A model like this would be helpful to implement in S.C.

These lists are not comprehensive. There is other great work being done and myriad ways we could work in S.C. to help food-producing and new farmers thrive. To stay in the loop, sign up for CFSA’s Action Alerts.

Katie Welborn is the S.C. Policy Coordinator for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  She also serves on leadership teams for the S.C. Food Policy Council, End Child Hunger S.C., the S.C. Food Access Task Force, the S.C. Ag Council, Slow Food Columbia, and the Midlands Food Alliance.

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