Every aspect of the food system, from production to market development, was addressed in new funding initiatives announced last week by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a visit and discussion at Georgetown University. The efforts look to transform the food system into one that is more resilient to shocks like the ones that have upended supply chains in the last two years.

“The transformation that has to take place has to be comprehensive,” Vilsack said. “A transformed food system is how we as a country become more resilient in the face of these threats.” The threats include issues we face today such as war, labor shortages, the pandemic, and climate change, he explained, and food production must become more local and less concentrated to combat them.

Areas of focus

Of interest on the farm side is that Vilsack said USDA is introducing a mentoring program to connect farmers going through the process of transitioning to organic production with someone who has completed those efforts. “The transition to organic production can be complicated, especially in the early days,” Vilsack recognized. The $300 million investment will help ease that process not only with mentoring support, but also through assistance with costs and market development.

Making sure healthy food can get to those who need it — which is all Americans — was another key emphasis during the discussion. In that arena, USDA is aiming funding to eliminate food deserts and strengthen urban food initiatives. Senior farmers markets, which connect older adults with access to fresh food, will also be supported.

Schools cannot be left out of this discussion because those meals address both food insecurity and nutrition insecurity, Vilsack said. The Farm-to-School program will see more funding, and a new initiative will partner with food industry leaders to encourage innovation for school meals. Vilsack added that this program will also support school chefs and food developers to create healthier options.

The most obvious issue that emerged from the pandemic was the lack of flexibility in processing capacity across the country, particularly in the meat industry. That has already been addressed by the $325 million pledged to help build new or expand existing independent meat and poultry processing plant capacity by the end of this year. So far, the department has received nearly $900 million in requests, Vilsack shared. And to staff these facilities, USDA is partnering with land grant universities and community colleges to support workforce development programs in meat processing.

Additional money has been allocated to grants and low-interest loans to help build new capacity in processing areas other than meat and poultry, he continued. With more capacity and competition, both producers and consumers will benefit.

Although these programs are at different stages of implementation, they will all contribute to a food system that is more resilient and provides for the needs of all people, Vilsack said. He also announced that USDA will be establishing a national network of food business centers staffed with technical experts experienced in all USDA programs to help facilitate these opportunities for people that can use them.

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June 6, 2022
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