Hugh Weathers saw a void in how people in South Carolina were shopping and eating. With supermarkets full of fruits, vegetables, and meats sourced from Florida to California to Mexico, people shopped based on what was easily accessible and there. The South Carolina Department of Agriculture commissioner knew that this practice led to people missing out on fresh, flavorful, regionally grown foods. Moreso, it allowed the state’s small, independent farmers to fall by the wayside.
Under the commissioner’s leadership, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture introduced the Certified SC Grown program, which helped consumers easily identify foods produced within the state. This consequentially resulted in more economic opportunities for the region’s farmers.
Weathers didn’t stop there. He targeted restaurants next, encouraging chefs to source a significant portion of menu ingredients from within the state (after all, when people aren’t cooking for themselves, they’re likely eating at restaurants!). Restaurants that accepted the objective became part of the Fresh on the Menu program, which helps diners locate places preparing fresh and local foods.
The Local Palate chatted with commissioner Weathers to learn a bit more about who can join Fresh on the Menu and why they should.
HUGH WEATHERS DISCUSSES FRESH ON THE MENU
How did Fresh on the Menu begin? What sort of growth has it experienced since its founding?
Fresh on the Menu is the restaurant counterpart to our successful Certified South Carolina [Grown] program, which helps connect consumers to local food and the farmers who grow and raise it. Fresh on the Menu restaurants commit to using at least 25 percent in-season Certified South Carolina products on their menus.
We started Fresh on the Menu as a pilot program with great success in the Charleston area in 2008 and launched it statewide shortly after. We saw a growing demand for local food among consumers, and we saw restaurants as natural new partners in our mission to help farmers.
What sorts of incentives are there for restaurants to become part of Fresh on the Menu? For markets?
It’s free for restaurants to join Fresh on the Menu, and in exchange for their commitment to sourcing local menu items, they get to be part of a statewide multimedia marketing campaign. We promote their restaurants through the Fresh on the Menu website and database, social media, print media, billboards, chef videos, and other avenues. Also, perhaps the most important part of Fresh on the Menu is sourcing assistance. Our staff help chefs buy directly with farmers, track down hard-to-find ingredients, and discuss what’s in season.
Are there any similar programs based in the South or on the East Coast that businesses or people not located in South Carolina can use to seek out regionally sourced ingredients?
As far as I know, the program is unique among Southern states. If you’re outside of the Palmetto State, I encourage you to ask for locally grown food at your favorite restaurants. You can also look for the Certified South Carolina sticker no matter where you are – whether it’s peaches, collards, quail, or many other great farm products, South Carolina farmers are growing some truly wonderful foods.
How do consumers benefit from seeking out places involved with Fresh on the Menu?
When consumers seek our Fresh on the Menu restaurants, they are supporting their neighbors, our South Carolina farmers. They’re also getting food that travel less distance, saving transportation costs. And they’re supporting our local foodways: homegrown flavors and local varieties that help make our state what it is.
After 12-plus years, I’d say Fresh on the Menu has been a major success. I thank the restaurants, chefs, farmers, and consumers across our state for making it possible.
South Carolina chefs interested in joining the Fresh on the Menu program can learn more from the Join page on the Fresh on the Menu website.
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