USDA announces local, organic food programs

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2014 - USDA officials yesterday announced more than $83 million in funding for several programs designed to encourage healthy, local food options in farmers markets and in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said up to $31.5 million in funding is available from USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to help SNAP participants more easily afford fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Separately, speaking  at the Virginia State Fair, Vilsack announced more than $52 million in USDA grant funding to encourage the development of the organic industry and local and regional food systems.

“Helping families purchase more fresh produce is clearly good for families' health, helps contribute to lower health costs for the country, and increases local food sales for family farmers,” Vilsack said in a release touting the NIFA funding.

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The NIFA funding will be used to create the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, which was authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill. FINI will accept applications for funding for small pilot projects, multiyear community-based projects, or larger-scale multiyear projects. The projects must meet a set of qualifications, including being backed by a state SNAP agency and increasing the purchase of fruits and vegetables in SNAP.

The FINI grants are modeled after the “Double-Up Food Bucks” initiative from Michigan, the home state of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow. In a statement, Stabenow said she was pleased with the formal announcement of programs that she said provide greater access to nutritious foods while also supporting local family farms.

“These programs were major priorities for me when writing the 2014 Farm Bill and emphasize the importance of feeding families nutritious, healthy food and strengthening economic opportunities within communities by purchasing food from local farmers and businesses,” Stabenow said in a release. “These programs are part of a larger effort to ultimately strengthen communities by starting with the food we eat every day.” 

FINI was called an “incredible opportunity” that supports producers and consumers alike by Michel Nischan, founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that promotes locally grown foods in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

“We are thrilled to see our government and the USDA placing an emphasis on making healthy produce affordable for everyone, while simultaneously supporting small and mid-sized farms,” Nischan said in a statement.

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Yesterday, USDA also announced programs that will encourage development of the organic food industry and local farmers markets. Also created in the 2014 Farm Bill, programs such as the Farmers Market Promotion Program, Local Foods Promotion Program, Organic Research and Extension Initiative and Community Food Projects will “recruit and train farmers, expand economic opportunities, and increase access to healthy foods,” USDA said. Grants were also awarded through the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program.

The programs all serve a different purpose to producers.  FMPP and LFPP will share $27 million in competitive grants. FMPP will make annual investments in marketing and promotion for farmers markets and LFPP will invest in local food enterprises such as local food processors and food hubs.

The $19 million in OREI funds will help producers who have already adopted organic standards grow and expand their businesses, and CFP projects will work to address the issue of hunger in 22 different projects in 16 states. Finally, FSMIP funding was awarded to state agriculture departments and state colleges and universities. In all, 17 projects in 13 states will address challenges faced with marketing, transporting, and distributing their agricultural products domestically and internationally.

USDA officials said these programs underscore the desire of the public to know more about their food.

“Consumers are increasingly demanding more local and organic options,” Vilsack said. “Investing in local and regional food systems supports the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers, especially smaller operations, while strengthening economies in communities across the country.”

“This sector is just so popular,” USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo said in a call with reporters. “There's a lot of public interest, there's a huge consumer demand for locally-produced food and it's strong and it's growing. Folks want to know where their food is coming from.”

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