USDA unveiled 12 new Regional Food Business Centers Wednesday, funded with $400 million, that will provide technical and financial assistance to strengthen local and regional food systems, along with another $420 million in a new Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program to expand capacity and processing for non-meat and poultry products.

The announcements build on the Biden administration’s efforts to offer an alternative to the commercial production agricultural system. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’s excited about the opportunity to create a more resilient food system and more revenue streams for producers.

Vilsack stressed during a press conference Wednesday that the commercial production agricultural system will continue to be needed to produce the food and fiber needed domestically and around the world.

“But we need a companion system to be able to ensure that small and mid-sized producers can stay in business and remain profitable,” he said.

USDA announced in September that $400 million would be available for at least six regional centers, but Wednesday’s announcement funded a total of 12 covering different geographic regions:  

  • Appalachia USDA Regional Food Business Center, Rural Action Inc.
  • Delta USDA RFBC, Mississippi Delta Council for Farmworker Opportunities
  • Great Lakes Midwest USDA RFBC, Michigan State University
  • Heartland USDA RFBC, University of Nebraska
  • National Intertribal Food Business Center, Intertribal Agriculture Council
  • Island and Remote Areas USDA RFBC, Hawaii Good Food Alliance
  • North Central USDA RFBC, Region Five Development Commission
  • Northeast USDA RFBC, NASDA Foundation
  • Northwest and Rocky Mountain USDA RFBC, Colorado State University
  • Rio Grande Colonias USDA RFBC, Texas A&M AgriLife
  • Southeast USDA RFBC, Georgia Minority Outreach Network
  • Southwest USDA RFBC, University of California

Debbie Phillips, CEO of Rural Action, applied as part of the Central Appalachian Network, which is a network of practitioners working across state lines to support farmers and food businesses through technical assistance and access to resources. She said being a food business center will enhance collaboration with organizations that have an on-the-ground presence in working with small farmers and food businesses.

“You all know that farming is a tough business,” Phillips said. “It’s very challenging. A lot of food businesses operate on narrow margins if they stay in business at all. We saw these systems, though, have greater resiliency as we responded to the impact of COVID.”

Phillips said the center plans to regrant $4 million annually over four years to farms and businesses that need help with their business plans. In a release, Phillips said the ability to provide grants directly to these farms and food businesses will be a "game changer." 

“As we’re working with these producers and businesses to provide technical assistance and business planning and marketing assistance, they’ll be able to develop proposals for how this investment will help further their plans and strengthen their operations for the long haul,” Phillips said on the press call with Vilsack.  

Vilsack said USDA will be tracking how much technical assistance the centers provide and how effective they are at accomplishing the goal of establishing or strengthening local and regional food systems. He said he anticipates the initial five-year funding will provide Phillips at Rural Action and those in other regions a “significant runway” to show Congress the investment is worthy of continued investment in future farm bills or budget allocations.

The $420 million for the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program (RFSI), designed to complement USDA's meat and poultry processing grant programs, will allow the Agricultural Marketing Service to enter into cooperative agreements with states or U.S. territories to support “projects that expand capacity for the collection, processing, manufacturing, storing, transporting, wholesaling and distribution of food products, including specialty crops, dairy, grains for human consumption, aquaculture, and other food products other than meat and poultry,” USDA said. 

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“Entities eligible for subawards include agricultural producers or processors, non-profit organizations, local government entities, tribal governments, and institutions such as schools, universities or hospitals,” the department said.

Vilsack said he expects state secretaries and commissioners of agriculture “will understand and appreciate where in their community and their state the need is, in terms of distribution or warehousing or transportation or processing for non-meat and poultry products."

He added that through the many resources Congress provided in the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and the Commodity Credit Corporation, USDA has a “tremendous opportunity” to make a difference in building out local and regional food systems. He believes the activity generated over the next couple of years will generate more hope in small and midsize farming operations.

Vilsack said, “I'm confident that over the course of the next several years, we're going to begin to see small and mid-sized producers have not just a single way to make money of selling a crop or raising livestock or getting government payment, but actually will have multiple ways whether it's climate-smart agriculture, participation in ecosystem service markets, local and regional food system opportunities with maybe a Farm-to-School effort, or taking each of the centers to strengthen and establish local regional markets.”

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