OMAHA (DTN) -- Making the case that the country's food system has gone through "a time of great disruption" tied to the pandemic, climate change "and an unprovoked and brutal war," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Biden administration are launching a campaign to focus on "transforming" the food system.
The framework laid out Wednesday includes USDA rolling more than $2.1 billion in funding programs for food production, processing, distribution and selling to consumers. That includes hundreds of millions of dollars for meat processing, but also to expand organic production and address urban agriculture, food deserts and various nutrition programs.
Vilsack will kick off the "food systems transformation" with a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, followed by an event in Ohio on Thursday. Vilsack's speech highlights a litany of challenges that agriculture and the country have faced, but points to the need for the country to respond.
"When faced with grave challenges, America seizes the opportunity to transform into a stronger and better form of itself," Vilsack said in a speech excerpt.
Vilsack added while USDA is spending billions now on these initial investments, it will require Congress to also integrate some of these initiatives and programs into the next farm bill. "The farm bill presents a critical opportunity to advance the new vision of the transformed food system we discuss today," he said.
ORGANIC AND SPECIALTY CROPS
For farmers and ranchers, USDA is building on its organic certification and cost-share programs by releasing up to $300 million in a new Organic Transition Initiative. That will include technical assistance and direct support through conservation programs and crop insurance. "Organic production provides producers with the ability to demand a premium in the marketplace and thus take home a greater share of the food dollar; there can also be climate and environmental benefits," USDA stated.
For farmers who grow specialty crops, USDA will provide $200 million for food safety certification programs. The funds will help offset on-farm food safety expenses. USDA noted fruit and vegetable growers "incur significant costs to comply with regulatory requirements and market-driven food safety certification requirements each year." These funds will help producers tap into other markets, USDA stated.
There is also $75 million to promote and support urban agriculture. USDA already offers some competitive grants for urban agriculture, but only about 6% of applications receive funding. USDA will spend $20 million to help reduce a backlog of applications and another $10 million to increase grant money available. Another $40 million will go to agreements with organizations to help train and expand programs for urban farmers. USDA will spend another $5 million to promote local production through the People's Garden initiative.
Going back to the problems of supply chains during the pandemic, USDA cited that consolidated processing capacity created supply bottlenecks. "Small and midsize farmers often struggled to compete for processing access and were left without an avenue for getting their animals to market," USDA stated.
With that, USDA will use $375 million in loan guarantees for the Food Supply Chain Loan Guarantee Program. That will support independent meat and poultry processing plant projects. About $275 million will go to working with lenders to make more loans available for meat and poultry processing sectors.
The loan guarantee program will tie into the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program, which will offer grants of up to $25 million. USDA has already closed applications for those funds, which included 200 applications and more than $800 million in funding requests. USA will spend another $25 million providing technical assistance for standards and requirements to aid small processors.
Another $600 million will provide financial assistance to support food supply chains outside of the meat and poultry processing area. These funds, though not listed in a specific program, will go to help address cold storage, refrigerated trucks and processing facilities that are in short supply. USDA stated it will invest in several areas for different food sectors, including helping with high equipment costs, lack of competition and other supply chain challenges.
USDA will spend $400 million to create regional food business centers to help work with small and mid-sized food and farm businesses. The main focus will be on processing and distribution challenges, particularly in underserved communities in different regions of the country. USDA compared the support to networks provided to other businesses through the Small Business Administration.
Another $60 million will go to help expand commodity purchases through Farm to School programs. States and territories will receive grants to help increase the purchase of local foods for child nutrition programs.
Along with that, USDA will spend about $90 million to increase the focus on reducing food waste. Citing that the U.S. wasted $408 billion in food in 2019 alone, USDA stated food waste increases emissions and unnecessary energy. Part of this program will include expanding community compost programs as well.
Another $100 million will be available to help train workers, which USDA said would be essential to the success of independent meat and poultry processing facilities. USDA will use $40 million through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and its funding for university extension and sustainable agriculture programs.
FOOD DESERTS AND SENIORS
Another $370 million will go toward a pot of programs, including expanding grants and loans to businesses or groups that will help address food deserts in communities across the country with the goal of expanding access to healthy foods. Other funds will go to help increase access for senior citizens going to local farmer markets and also to help the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables through medical prescriptions as well. At least $100 million will go towards supporting schools to improve the nutritional quality of their meals.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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