COLUMBIA - Collard greens are a step away from being South Carolina's official vegetable, thanks to a 9-year-old who missed field day at her school Thursday to lobby legislators.

The South Carolina House voted 86-14 to elevate the status of the green, leafy vegetable - a Southern staple often considered "soul food" and flavored with fatback. The House decided to allow an automatic third reading Friday that will send the measure to the governor's desk.

After the vote, representatives recognized Lexington third-grader Mary Grace Wingard with applause.

"It was really exciting for me," she said afterward, beaming.

The measure started with Mary Grace's letter to Sen. Jake Knotts, saying she was inspired by a class field trip to the Statehouse in March, when she took Gov. Nikki Haley's often-used "get excited" phrase to heart. Knotts, R-West Columbia, introduced her proposal April 14, and it quickly moved ahead.

"The governor told us to get excited and get involved in government, so I decided I would," said the Rocky Creek Elementary student.

She thought of collards, she said, because "I really, really like them. They are very tasty and have lots of nutrients."

She summed up her research in a second letter to legislators, showing, for instance, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks South Carolina second nationwide in collard production.

"The third-graders at my school have studied South Carolina history this year, which includes how laws are made. They are watching to see how my bill moves through the Statehouse," she wrote. She included her phone number at the end for questions and noted, "I get home from school about 3:00."

Though her letter doesn't reference it, collards are also her family's tradition. Mary Grace's great-grandfather is the namesake of Walter P. Rawl and Sons Inc., a family-owned farm in Lexington County that is the state's largest producer of collards.

Her father, Charles Wingard, said he didn't know anything about the bill until the Senate was voting on it. The Senate approved it 30-12 on April 26.

"This is a great lesson in civics for her and her classmates," he said.

Haley applauded Mary Grace.

"The governor reminds kids every day that even though they aren't old enough to vote, they are old enough to care about their state," said her spokesman, Rob Godfrey, though he didn't say if she'll sign it. "The governor is very proud of Mary Grace, who has become a great example of a new generation of South Carolinians who love their state."

Collard greens could join the likes of boiled peanuts, the state snack; tea, the state hospitality beverage; and whitetail deer, the state animal.

It could be the second time in four years that a Lexington County third-grader ushered in a state designation. Indigo became the state color in 2008, thanks to Lake Murray Elementary student Lauren Cunningham.

Collards, which can put off an unpleasant aroma when cooked, are also part of Southern folklore, which says eating collards and black-eyed peas in New Year's Day will bring prosperity and good luck. Historians say the tradition dates back to the kitchens of West African slaves who served the meal to their white owners.

Those voting against the designation included Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. While he recognizes the bill is well-intentioned, he said, it gives the perception the Legislature is spending time on frivolous legislation.

On a lighter note, he added, "I'm not a big fan of collard greens. Think of how all the other vegetables feel."

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