USDA announces new investments in food system resilience, competition

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vegetables in a wooden crate set down on the grass.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making major investments in resilience and competition for the nation’s food system. These investments follow supply chain challenges and other issues from the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

In a June 1 address, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a framework that includes more funding in production, processing, distribution and aggregation and markets and consumers.

“We want quite a bit out of our food system. And indeed, we’ve created this incredibly efficient food system. The problem was that it needs to be resilient,” Vilsack said.

One way to balance resilience and efficiency is to build up more local and regional food systems, in addition to the larger, national system, he said. Transforming the food system could help farmers keep producing while adapting to a changing climate, create better markets for farmers and ranchers as well as consumers and improve food access in the U.S. as well as globally through exports.

But to achieve those things, changes need to touch on a range of things including food production, processing, distribution and market development, he said.

Production

The investments in food production include up to $300 million for a new Organic Transition Initiative. The initiative will help farmers switch to organic systems through technical assistance, mentoring, conservation financial assistance, crop insurance assistance and market development projects.

“The process for becoming an organic producer is complicated and financially difficult, especially during the early days of transition, when expenses can be high and income limited,” Vilsack said.

The USDA is also investing another $75 million in urban agriculture. Some of that will go to support competitive grants for urban agriculture.

Only about 6% of all applications for the USDA’s urban agriculture competitive grants received funding in 2020 and 2021. $20 million of the funding will go to a backlog of applications, and the USDA will increase the money available for 2022 by $10 million.

Processing

Challenges with processing, especially meat and poultry processing, became very obvious during the beginning of the pandemic. Because the industry is so consolidated, it’s easy for bottlenecks to form.

To address that, the USDA has already made several investments in local processing, and announced several more June 1.

They include $100 million for workforce training in meat processing, $200 million for food safety certification for specialty crops and $600 million to support food supply chain infrastructure like cold storage, refrigerated trucks and processing facilities.

Distribution

Investments in distribution and aggregation include $400 million to create regional food business centers. Those centers would offer things like technical assistance to small and mid-sized food and farm businesses.

They also include $60 million for more commodity purchases through Farm-to-School and $90 million to reduce food loss and waste.

Consumers

Funding for markets and consumers includes another $155 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, $50 million for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, $40 million for the GusNIP Produce Prescriptions Program, $25 million to support improvements in SNAP technology and $100 million to create a new Healthy Food Incentive Fund.

The new fund would support school efforts to make school meals more nutritious. These programs would all support access to healthy food, particularly for underserved communities.

“The pandemic and ensuing inflation caused by supply chain disruptions and Putin’s war against Ukraine underscores the difficulty of providing healthy and nutritious food for all when markets are disrupted,” Vilsack said.

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