By Tony Kukulich
A program to provide fresh, locally grown produce to the Beaufort County School District (BCSD) is opening new markets to Gullah farmers.
The program comes from a partnership between the St. Helena Island-based Gullah Farmers Cooperative Association and Sodexo, the company that has managed the student nutrition program for the school district for approximately 20 years.
“We’re excited about our new partnership with Gullah Farmers Cooperative,” said Larry Wilson, Sodexo district manager. “At Sodexo, through our Supply Chain Inclusion Program, we amplify small, diverse, local and sustainable sourcing from the communities where we operate. We seek out and cultivate relationships with local vendors to promote positive economic, social and environmental changes.”
According to Joe McDomick, president of the cooperative, the new partnership helps solve a major challenge for local farmers, who have long struggled to find markets for their produce. He said farmers often drive to farmers markets as far away as Columbia and frequently bring home most of their produce.
“By having that market locally here, it means a tremendous amount to local farmers – time, money, everything,” McDomick said. “Otherwise, we’d be selling it around like we’ve done for the last 100 years. That certainly is a big break for the local farmers. It means everything to us. This is a historic deal.”
Sodexo serves about 3 million meals a year in the BCSD. By law, each meal must include a fruit and a vegetable. That translates to annual spending of about $250,000 just on produce.
The seed for the program was planted 10 years ago when there was an effort to increase the fruits and vegetables in the BCSD student nutrition program. Wilson contacted York Glover who was, at the time, the regional representative Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. Glover was confident that local farmers could meet most of the district’s needs.
“The school (district) has never done anything like this before,” McDomick said. “They’re getting produce right from the local area, harvested the day before. It goes right to the schools. It’s on the table within two days. That’s something that never happened before for the local school district. And the kids will tell you that the local stuff tastes a whole lot better than the stuff they’ve been getting shipped in from outside of the county.”
The Gullah Farmers Cooperative Association helped farmers get the certifications necessary to allow them to sell produce in the open market. With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cooperative purchased and modified the Leroy K. Brown building on St. Helena Island to serve as a processing and distribution center. Finally, Sodexo connected the cooperative with Limehouse to assist with distribution of the produce. The inclusion of a distribution channel solved problems that hampered earlier efforts to get local produce to the school district.
“The added value for the farmers, for the cooperative, is that we were able to get them in our supply chain because that exposes them to business all up the coast,” Wilson said. “I think Limehouse delivers as far as Georgetown. It could be anywhere from Georgetown to Beaufort. They are now positioned to be a supplier for a major produce distribution house in the Southeast. It’s a huge win for them.”
Produce included on the school district’s shopping list includes cabbage, collard greens, strawberries, cantaloupe, cucumbers and tomatoes. There’s also been a demand for romaine given the popularity of salad bars.
In addition to the benefits of fresh produce, Sodexo is emphasizing the local aspects of the products being served to students. A placard is placed in the cafeteria with a photograph of the fields where the produce was grown along with a photograph and information on the farmer who grew the product.
“We are doing an educational piece,” said Tim Green, Sodexo resident district manager. “Most likely it will start next year. The schools will be able to talk about the products we’re serving. We’ll highlight whatever the produce of the month will be. We’ll provide the Latin name and what the health benefits are, all that kind of stuff.”
The Gullah Farmers Cooperative Association represents farmers who are continuing the agricultural traditions of the Gullah community. It currently represents 10 Gullah farm operations in Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, Charleston and Jasper counties. McDomick hopes that more farmers will join the cooperative with the success of the BCSD program.
“I see the program expanding,” he said. “I hope we’ll be a model for the rest of South Carolina as to what can happen when local people get together. We can do great things when we all come together.”
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.