USDA program could help shore up local and regional food economies
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Snags in the food supply chain have put more Americans in need of food assistance. They’ve also laid bare problems with our country’s local and regional food economies.
The USDA recently announced a new effort to address both problems: A $400 million local food purchase assistance program.
Recent spikes in the price of meat and fresh produce start on farms and ranches, where producers are seeing higher input costs and struggling to hire workers.
Then come processing bottlenecks, and the challenges of shipping food across the country or the world.
“So we need changes on all levels of the food supply chain,” said Miguel Gómez with Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics, adding that those changes won’t come quickly. But in the meantime, “I am convinced that this is a huge opportunity to develop local and regional food systems.”
Gomez also said the USDA’s investment could be a good step towards bolstering those systems.
“It’s a way to decentralize, or to localize our food systems so that we do not depend on only one or two origins for our food,” he said.
The program will give state and tribal governments funds to buy locally grown food for nutritional assistance programs, like school cafeterias and food banks.
Erin Pulling heads up Food Bank of the Rockies, which operates in Northern Colorado and across Wyoming. She said feeding those communities has become three times as expensive since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s really been the perfect storm with supply chain challenges, cost increases in food and increases in need,” she said.
Pulling said the organization buys as much local produce, meat and dairy as it can, but faces cost limitations. She welcomes the potential federal help.
“So we’re thinking about people in need, and food banks’ ability to meet that need. But we’re also thinking about our local agricultural partners,” she said.
The USDA said historically underserved producers will be prioritized under the new program.
Rudy Arredondo is with the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association. He said the small producers his organization represents have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic and its economic impacts.
“Certainly our community suffered quite a bit because we have always been at the tail end of receiving any kind of benefits,” he said. “We appreciate the fact that we finally have been included in that.”
Arredondo said the program will provide an immediate financial boost, but longer term rural infrastructure investments are needed to keep local food systems viable.
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