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Peterson and Vilsack endorse local and regional food at Home Grown

February 19, 2010

More than 200 people braved chilling western Minnesota February weather on Monday and Tuesday to hear House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson and USDA Secretary Vilsack speak about the need to develop better local food systems at the Home Grown Economy conference at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.  At least another 100 participants joined by video conference from four additional sites.  Both the Secretary and the Chairman emphasized the opportunities that increasing food production for local markets offers rural communities and how USDA programs can help support their development.  (See Dave Swenson’s recent study on the potential in similar SW Iowa region.)

Chairman Peterson opened the conference with an endorsement of the First Lady’s new Let’s Move initiative to reduce childhood obesity and his support for the idea that US agriculture can help by increasing, in particular, the volume of fruits and vegetables produced, and increasing their availability in underserved areas.  He emphasized that any federal support for developing new market relationships will have to happen within the context of fiscal crisis and that he anticipates the possibility of agricultural budget cuts next year, including possible cuts to farm programs, via a congressional budget reconciliation process.

Secretary Vilsack expanded on the theme of using local agriculture to address health, energy, and economic development challenges in rural areas and offered existing USDA Rural Development and Marketing programs to build the supply and capacity to meet local food demand.  He decried the past use of Business and Industry Loan Guarantees (B&I) to fund convenience stores and hotels that “subsidized people driving through rural communities” and pledged that B&I will now be used to help “create good lives in rural America” through investments in businesses, including grocery stores, that can be keystones of sustainable local development.  Data indicates that B&I now has 188 active loans for convenience stores totaling $279,818,036 and only 53 grocery store loan projects totaling $59,677,072.

Secretary Vilsack offered several USDA programs as key to building regional food economies, all programs very familiar to NSAC members.  The five percent set aside in the B&I program for local and regional food enterprises, increased funding for Value-Added Producer Grant including a special funding set-aside for mid-tier value chain development, the creation of the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, and doubling farm bill mandatory funding in 2011 for the Farmers Market Promotion Program were all NSAC-led campaigns in the 2008 Farm Bill.

For a quick-guide to these and other Farm Bill programs and grants, click here.

Linking Nutrition and Local Food

An interesting new emphasis of the Secretary’s was on the potential that USDA’s nutrition programs offer to stimulate local food production, processing, retailing, and consumption.  Secretary Vilsack repeatedly mentioned the as-yet unfunded Farm to School program.  In addition, with reference to SNAP (formerly food stamps), he mentioned possible new grants to create incentives for SNAP participants to purchase local food.  (He may have been referring to the proposed $4 million for EBT connections for farmers markets included in the FY2011 budget.  NSAC will stay tuned and let you know as we learn more. Click here to sign up to receive news from NSAC.)

Over $4 million of SNAP purchases are made in farmers markets annually, accounting for only 0.04% of SNAP food purchases, so there is clearly room for growth.  Vilsack pointed out the every SNAP dollar spent generates $1.84 in economic activity.  If SNAP is used to purchase local or regional food products the economic stimulus to the area will be even greater.

The Secretary also mentioned the WIC program.  NSAC submitted comments on the new WIC program fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers encouraging the Department to have all states certify farmers markets as vendors and encourage participants’ access to markets.

B&I Loan for Regional Food System Development

In a related development on Tuesday, USDA announced a $450,000 B&I Loan Guarantee to Organic Renaissance, LLC in Athol, MA to lease a building to facilitate the cost-effective aggregation and distribution of food products grown in MA, southern N.H., southern VT and northern CT to restaurants, retailers and others in the region.  This is the first example NSAC has seen of a B&I loan guarantee for an enterprise designed to build the regional food system.

Categories: Local & Regional Food Systems

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