Vegetables fresh from local farms will be a fixture in the cafeterias of Beaufort County's public schools this fall.
The school district, Clemson University Extension and state agencies are developing a "Farm to School" program to serve locally grown produce in school lunches in Beaufort, Jasper and Colleton counties.
"It's helping small farmers, and you'll get better vegetables," said Ben Johnson Jr., who has a farm on St. Helena Island.
York Glover, a Clemson Extension agent, said the group hopes to start with collard greens in September. The program will expand over time to provide an array of local produce, such as broccoli, cabbage, squash, spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Glover said the program will give local farmers another buyer for their products.
Students will get better-tasting, fresh vegetables they're more willing to eat, Glover said. He said the quality of locally grown collards was validated in a taste test by school food-service workers.
"They all said if we are serving this product in the schools, the students will eat it," he said.
Larry Wilson, the school district's food service manager, said some farmers have indicated they would open their farms to students for field trips.
"If they see collards growing in the fields or tomatoes growing on the vine and then see them in the lunch line, that will bring it closer to home," he said.
Startup money for the program would come from federal grants, including one that would pay for equipment local farmers could use to wash and prepare their produce.
The S.C. Department of Education also received federal money to expand Farm to School programs throughout the state, and some of that money will come to Beaufort County, said Todd Bedenbaugh, director of the department's Office of Health and Nutrition.
Bedenbaugh said his office has been encouraging Farm to School for a couple of years. A pilot program was conducted in Lexington County last year, and school districts in Spartanburg and Anderson counties have made efforts to buy locally.
He said schools that buy locally have found prices comparable to other sources.
Joseph McDomick, president of the Gullah Farmers Cooperative, said local farmers will grow the crops and then wash, chop and package them before delivering them to school cafeterias.
The food could appear on students' lunch trays within 24 hours of harvest, he said.
"I'm excited, and the farmers are excited," he said. "It seems like the county and the school board are excited. We're going to make sure this gets off the ground and gets moving."