The Federal Reserve, better known for setting the nation’s monetary policy than promoting locally-grown produce, released a book this week celebrating the growing local and regional farm and food sectors as key drivers of economic and community development. Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities, produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), concludes that one of the best solutions to economic challenges in both rural and urban America is the rebirth of regional food economies.
Consumer protection and community development is one of the five primary, albeit least well known, functions of the Federal Reserve system. Given this, the Fed’s latest report is not totally out of the blue, though this is the first time the agency had chosen to tackle local and regional food as a central theme and organizing principle in its community development work.
The book is divided into 17 chapters, which are each authored by a who’s who of long time actors in regional food system work. This compendium serves as a quick, succinct overview of the current thinking on local/regional food systems, and also includes short case studies and extensive bibliographies for those interested in digging into further reading. One of the most important achievements of the book, however, is its clear delineation of the rapidly growing multitude of food system organizing and business development activities around the country.
The book was released as part of a one-day conference in Washington, DC this week, which featured many of the contributing authors and other regional food system practitioners as panelists. Follow up events, including regional forums that will help connect farmers, investors, and other food system actors, are planned for several of the regional Federal Reserve banks. Once more details are known, we will follow up with a blog outlining dates and themes for those regional events.
What’s the Fed Got to Do with It?
Representing the Federal Reserve at the DC event was Anna Alvarez Boyd, the Senior Associate Director of the agency’s community development division. Alvarez Boyd made a particular point of highlighting the Fed’s interest in using investments and lending in the regional food space to boost financial resources and job creation. The targets of such investments, she told attendees, would be rural and urban communities that have experienced underinvestment and persistent poverty, outmigration, and food insecurity challenges.
Alvarez Boyd indicated three key roles the Fed would play in this process: 1) acting as a matchmaker by convening farmers, food entrepreneurs, lenders and investors; 2) improving access to financial services to create more small farm and food business development opportunities; and 3) enhancing financial stability by improving farm profitability and recycling more dollars within local economies through the growing power of the regional food economy.
What About USDA?
Anne Hazlett, USDA’s Rural Development Assistant to the Secretary, was also present at the one-day conference event. Hazlett underscored that USDA believes local and regional food plays an outsized role in bringing on the next generation of farmers. She stressed that farmers in alternative markets (e.g., direct-to-consumer sales, farm to school vendors, regional retailers, etc.) are very entrepreneurial and that the markets themselves serve as incubators for new businesses. Hazlett also told attendees that she saw supporting local and regional food systems as a way to address the top four areas in promoting rural prosperity as identified by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue: quality of life; workforce development; innovation; and economic development.
Noting that much of rural America is in tough economic shape, with low farm income, higher poverty than the rest of the country, high drug addiction rates, and limited access to grocery stores, Hazlett said that Secretary Perdue is dedicated to taking action to create rural prosperity. She ended her remarks by saying that USDA is looking for new and creative ways to help facilitate local and regional food systems and prosperous rural communities.
NSAC has been working closely with champions in Congress on a bill with a robust set of policy and funding recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill to help farmers reach new markets, increase access to fresh local food among underserved populations, and develop new and strengthen existing infrastructure to better connect producers to consumers. We expect that a marker bill with these priorities will be introduced after Congress returns from its summer recess.
These efforts by the Federal Reserve and USDA to make regional farm and food systems a linchpin of economic revitalization could not come at a better time. Heading into the next farm bill, Congress has a major role to play in ensuring that farmers and small businesses have the tools and resources they need to grow their operations, take advantage of new market opportunities, and overcome current and future challenges. We hope that policy makers on Capitol Hill will take note and consider the findings of Harvesting Opportunity as they debate the next farm bill in the months ahead.