FARM PROGRESS, JACQUI FATKA
In an effort to continue to support local and regional food systems, USDA announced it will be providing $400 million from the American Rescue Plan for the establishment of six Regional Food Business Centers to create regional assistance for people to more easily access information about the 50 different USDA programs designed to build local and regional food systems.
During a Zoom call with over 500 participants on Wednesday morning, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said it was clear during the pandemic that although the food system is efficient, it was not as resilient as it needed to be. “Over the last 18 months, we’ve taken a number of steps to try to transform that food system,” Vilsack says.
This has included investments in local agricultural marketing efforts and farmers markets, expanded support for local and regional meat and poultry processing, loan guarantees for midlevel supply chain warehouse and cold storage operations, grants to allow meat facilities to expand market opportunities across state lines, and an organic transition initiative to encourage more folks to transition from conventional to farming operations.
“It became clear to us that we needed to do a better job of creating a mechanism by which people could more easily access information about programs and get the kind of technical assistance and resources that would allow them to fully access programs,” Vilsack explains.
Jenny Lester Moffitt, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory affairs, says she’s seen firsthand the challenges of starting a small business with her family’s almond farm and sees the need for access to support and resources. “This is a big milestone for us at USDA, and it’s an important part of the work that we’re doing to transform our nation’s food system.”
The $400 million from the American Rescue Plan will provide resources for up to five years for at least six regional food centers. Of the six centers, USDA will include a national tribal center and at least one center serving each of three targeted areas: Colonias (counties on the US/Mexico border), persistent poverty or other communities of high need/limited resources areas of the Delta and the Southeast, and high need areas of Appalachia as well as centers in other regions of the country.
Vilsack says a key responsibility of the centers is coordinating efforts across federal, state, local and tribal agencies and governments to support local and regional food systems to coordinate how to work and leverage programs that exist.
“We believe that these food centers will also allow us to provide a better understanding of the programs that are available that will invest in local food systems. And to make sure that we focus as well on underserved and unserved communities that are now looking to local food systems as an economic driver as an equity,” Vilsack says.
The centers will also provide comprehensive technical assistance to everyone across the supply chain ranging from producers and processors to distributors. And the centers will have enough resources to provide small grants to build capacity, Vilsack adds.
“We know consumers and the market want this and people need it. And we’re excited about the ability to fund these centers, and we think that they will in turn provide for the expansion and the strengthening of our local regional food system, making it more resilient and then as a result emerging from this period of disruption better,” Vilsack continues.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., who has also introduced legislation that advanced on the House floor to provide permanent funding for these types of regional food centers, welcomed the initial commitment.
“Farmers are required to spend more time, more energy and more money to get their products to market. And this is all at a time when they continue to be challenged,” Spanberger says. “Through today’s announcement of regional food business centers and through other steps to strengthen America’s food system, USDA alongside Congress, is truly laying the groundwork for a stronger future for consumers for small and medium-sized producers and for rural communities across the board.”
Spanbergers bipartisan American Food Supply Chain Resiliency Act “would build on the longevity of USDA regional food business centers to ensure that these investments are sustained well into the future because they make so much sense and because they will be so incredibly beneficial to our communities,” Spangberger explains.
“These resource centers will offer locally tailored coordination between multiple entities and local supply chains technical assistance to farmers grants to small and medium-sized producers and agribusinesses. And this initiative will lead to stronger supply chains. My bipartisan bill would codify these centers into law to make sure that they can always support producers and agribusinesses well into the future,” she adds.
Spanberger explains, “For consumers, these centers would help local producers get through lean years, obtain the inputs they need, and address challenges related to transportation costs, labor and energy prices. Smart investments from USDA and responsive legislation from Congress can have huge and important impacts on small and medium-sized producers and their ability to get food to market and improve their own bottom lines.”
Request for applications
Launching a 75-day process, the Agricultural Marketing Service published a Request for Applications for this program. The Regional Food Business Centers serving these high-need priority areas will identify farm to market linkages across their proposed geographic area to reach a variety of markets. Further guidance for applications is available in the RFA.
All applications to lead a Regional Food Business Center must come from a partnership consisting of three or more eligible entities representing at least two of the eligible entity types. Eligible entities include producer networks or associations, food councils, tribal governments, state agencies or regional authorities, institutions of higher education, nonprofit corporations, economic development corporations, and partnerships between one or more eligible entities.
Applications must be submitted electronically through www.grants.gov by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Nov. 22, 2022. To receive funding, the applications will undergo an administrative review to ensure the proposed activities fulfill the purpose of Regional Food Business Centers. Applications received after this deadline will not be considered for funding.