A menu filled with local goodness is the rule rather than the exception for an increasing number of South Carolina's finest eateries. From Charleston to Columbia, Greenville to Fort Mill and everywhere in-between, chefs are building their best dishes on a foundation of farm freshness.
Heirloom field peas, micro-greens, locally milled grits, Upstate peaches, rice from Darlington County, sea island oysters, tender okra pods grown and picked just miles from where you're sitting - in these parts, it's not unusual for menus to include the local origins of ingredients. While farm-to-table dining is the "in" thing across the nation right now, there's a dedicated movement to ensure the trend of serving fresh-from-the-farm foods finds firm footing in South Carolina culinary traditions.
From the farm to your fork
The path from farm to table used to be a lengthy, complicated process, but thanks to the emergence of food hubs, the trip from the garden to the fork has gotten far more streamlined. Chefs with an interest in community sustained agriculture, or CSA, traditionally had to invest a good bit of time and effort seeking out local farmers and their wares. Charleston-based GrowFood Carolina essentially relieves chefs of this task, giving them more time to tend to their kitchens while directing their precious energies to the creation of dishes that make South Carolina a premier dining destination.
GrowFood Carolina is the state's first such hub. Established in 2011, this operation directly serves 80 producers by providing a central location where operators of restaurants, institutions and grocery stores can come to choose fresh products, all of them harvested from South Carolina farms. This is not a farmers' market, however.
"We do not sell to the general public, said Sara Clow, Growfood manager. "The main reason we exist is to serve farmers and help them stay on their land. GrowFood is filling the gap between small producers and consumers. We create relationships at the farm level, ultimately reconnecting buyers to where food actually comes from. Our aim is to rebuild a value system into the food chain."
Inside a large warehouse on Morrison Avenue, the GrowFood concept is carried out by a small, but committed group of workers. Crates, boxes, bins and bags of fresh produce - tomatoes, melons, peanuts, blueberries, okra, potatoes, peaches, greens and more - as well as a cooler brimming with locally sourced dairy products are available for wholesale purchase. Buyers from area eateries, grocery stores, colleges and industries show up to peruse the goods and select what is needed.
The flourishing nonprofit operation has done some growing of its own, extending its service beyond Charleston to hundreds of outlets statewide, including popular grocery stores such as WholeFoods, EarthFare and Harris Teeter. You can identify GrowFood products by the "Find the Fork" logo.
Fresh food finds
Other areas in South Carolina are embracing the food hub concept, too, providing much-needed support to local farmers in ways that meet the unique needs and resources of their respective regions.
In Marion County, the Pee Dee FoodHub is just getting a foothold. Inspired by GrowFood, this operation markets produce shares to anchor institutions, such as hospitals, churches, industries, schools. Employees or members can purchase a six-month share of produce, with parcels delivered to the institutions every other week for pick up. This program supports more than 30 Pee Dee farmers and is helping bring fresh foods to consumers in a way that's simple and affordable.
Greenville's food hub dreams are slated to come to fruition in 2017 with the establishment of Feed & Seed. This comprehensive effort will link farms to markets and markets to tables through a collaboration of farmers, educators, advocates, health care professionals and policy makers. It will feature a farm, market, grocery store, café and more. York County currently is exploring its own farm to consumer program, too.
While all these projects have a broad focus for distributing locally sourced foods, don't forget South Carolina is also rich with bustling farmers' markets, big and small. There's one in a town near you. Stop by one for the best in produce, meats, seafood and dairy. Just look for the Certified South Carolina Grown logo - your guarantee you're buying a true taste of the state.
Several local farms across the state likewise offer seasonal CSA shares to consumers in the communities they serve. On a larger scale, City Roots in Columbia is a go-to source for South Carolina produce and goods. This urban farm supplies many of the city's restaurants, grocery stores and other outlets, while offering CSAs to consumers, as well. Pinckney's Produce, a CSA near Beaufort, also serves restaurants and families in the Lowcountry, Charleston and Columbia.
The ultimate benefit of all these efforts, however, is the one you experience directly: a fresher, healthier way of eating. South Carolina-grown foods and you - eating right never tasted so good.