Through the "Certified S.C. Grown" program, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture is helping foodservice companies connect with local growers.

In a meeting hosted by the state department of agriculture in December, Coosaw Farms, Fairfax, S.C., discovered that many foodservice companies had no idea where to find local growers and identify what crops were in season. The department worked to answer those questions and connect foodservice companies with local growers.

"As a result of this collaboration, we are looking forward to working with some foodservice centers in the Southeast for the first time this 2009 season," said Angela O'Neal Chappell, business development manager for Coosaw Farms.

While many of the foodservice companies might be used to working with large, national-based suppliers, many of the local growers have established food safety and traceability programs.

In addition to these initiatives, Coosaw Farms also has implemented social responsibility and sustainability programs. As a result, the company has the same professionalism as some of the larger suppliers.

"We're a small, family farm, but we operate with the utmost in service akin to a much larger organization so that our size doesn't hinder retail's or foodservice's ability to receive and experience the quality and flavor of our product," she said.

While transportation could be an issue when supplying locally grown produce, this hasn't been a problem, Chappell said. Foodservice operators generally have trucks in regular distribution, she said, and by using backhauls, it's feasible to get the produce to its destination. The order quantities are often lower than a retailer's purchase, which is delivered to a distribution center.

"Our time-tested experience in providing for retailers is also helping in these new found relationships with foodservice - giving them some relief," she said.

So far, the grower's entry into the foodservice industry has been a good fit and a logical step for the company. Coosaw Farms' South Carolina-grown watermelons are now being served in Southeastern restaurants, universities, schools, hospitals and corporate cafeterias.

"A chef's top priority is flavor - and we look forward to being able to provide this unsurpassed level of freshness through foodservice picking up at the farm, often the same day it was harvested," she said. "As the 'Certified SC Grown' program advocates, truly nothing's fresher, nothing's finer when you have access to locally grown."