The Biden administration announced plans Wednesday to spend more than $2 billion on a broad strategy for making targeted improvements in nearly every aspect of food production and distribution, with an emphasis on addressing the needs of small and mid-size operations and promoting organic and urban agriculture.
The plan is called a “food system transformation framework,” parts of which were previously announced or involve expansions of existing programs,
The strategy includes spending $1.3 billion on food processing and distribution, $300 million for assisting farmers to transition to organic agriculture and $230 million to expand urban agriculture and to increase grocery options in inner cities and rural communities that are considered food deserts.
In a speech at Georgetown University, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the money would be obligated by the end of the year and that more should be done through the next farm bill, which Congress is set to write in 2023.
The initiatives will help address several challenges, including lack of processing and distribution capacity, climate change and poor nutrition, he said.
"When faced with great challenges, America seizes the opportunity to transform itself into a stronger and better form of itself. It is, as President Biden often says, in our nature, to build back better," Vilsack said. "It's why we're emerging from this pandemic, with a majority of Americans vaccinated, record job growth and historic low unemployment. But there's clearly more to do. And a transformed food system is part of what needs to be done."
Vilsack later told reporters he expected the funding targeting urban agriculture and food deserts to produce quick results.
Vilsack's announcement comes as the Biden administration grapples with soaring consumer prices that are threatening Democrats' hopes of retaining control of Congress in the mid-term elections.
The initiatives are funded through the American Rescue Plan that was enacted in March 2021 and other relief legislation.
Among the major elements of the plan is $650 million in funding and loan assistance for meat and poultry processing projects, including $275 million to help entrepreneurs who have had trouble getting credit. Another $100 million would go toward training workers in meat processing. USDA has already received about 250 applications requesting grants totaling as much as $900 million for meat and poultry processing capacity, Vilsack said.
Another $600 million is earmarked for improving food supply chain infrastructure, including cold storage and refrigerated trucks, outside of meat and processing.
“While major strides are being made in efforts to create a more resilient food system, additional investments will be needed to expand cold storage, warehousing and other key components of the overall processing component of our food system,” Vilsack said. He said the funding would benefit both farmers and consumers by increasing competition in the processing sector.
The $300 million targeted toward organic transition will fund farmer-to-farmer mentoring while also providing assistance with conservation practices, crop insurance and market development.
Other initiatives in the plan include spending:
- $200 million to help fruit and vegetable growers comply with food safety regulations.
- $400 million to create regional food business centers with expertise in USDA programs to provide coordination and technical assistance to small and mid-size businesses involved in processing, distribution and aggregation. There will be a special focus on reaching historically underserved groups, Vilsack said.
- $155 million to expand USDA’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is aimed at reducing food deserts.
- $90 million to prevent and reduce food loss and waste.
- $60 million farm-to-school programs that increase markets for smaller-scale farmers through child nutrition programs.
The top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Glenn "GT" Thompson of Pennsylvania, blasted the administration plan as wasteful spending.
"Increasing spending on organic initiatives and rooftop gardens while placing misguided blame on corporations and agribusinesses will not increase domestic food production," Thompson said, saying the plan "blatantly ignores the skyrocketing inflation rates and input costs that are crushing America’s producers, compounded by the Administration’s burdensome regulatory overreach."
But Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who led the effort to get the funding during the pandemic, said the plan would help lower food costs and "build a food system that is fairer for consumers and better for the men and women who power our food economy.”
Chuck Conner, president of the CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former deputy secretary of USDA in the George W. Bush administration, praised the Vilsack plan during the Georgetown event.
Conner said ag co-ops learned during the pandemic "that we cannot take the strength of the food supply chain for granted. Change is needed, ladies and gentlemen, to strengthen it in the face of whatever future challenges we may face as a nation."
The Organic Trade Association welcomed the $300 million in promised funding for organic agriculture. CEO and Executive Director Tom Chapman said the initiative would make "the organic transition process more accessible and impactful, particularly for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, who experience unique challenges to accessing resources and support programs."
This report has been updated with more details and reaction.
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