USDA Campaigns for Local, Regional Food Systems

Food and agriculture are at the center of national dialogue as of late, re-introduced to the masses because of the “Food, Inc.” movie release, TIME magazine commentary “America's Food Crisis and How to Fix It” and most recently, a new USDA campaign launch.

The government branch is allocating millions of dollars in its budget to spur a nationwide conversation about how food travels from farms to plates.

“Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s initiative that aims to educate Americans about the importance of promoting local and regional food economies in our country’s food system to:

• Create new income opportunities for farmers
• Promote sustainable agriculture
• Generate wealth that remains in rural communities
• Supply healthier food
• Decrease energy expenditure

"An American people that is more engaged with their food supply will create new income opportunities for American agriculture," said Vilsack. "Reconnecting consumers and institutions with local producers will stimulate economies in rural communities, improve access to healthy, nutritious food for our families and decrease the amount of resources to transport our food."

The USDA will “use existing USDA programs to break down structural barriers that have inhibited local food systems from thriving” and has allocated the following toward the campaign:

• Risk Management Agency – $3.4 million for collaborative outreach and assistance programs to socially disadvantaged and underserved farmers. These programs will support “Know Your Farmer” goals by helping producers adopt new and direct-marketing practices. For example, nearly $10,000 in funding for the University of Minnesota will bring together experts on food safety and regulations for a discussion of marketing to institutions like K-12 schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and other health-care facilities.
• USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed regulations to implement a new voluntary cooperative program under which select state-inspected establishments will be eligible to ship meat and poultry products in interstate commerce. The new program was created in the 2008 Farm Bill and will provide new economic opportunities for small meat and poultry establishments, whose markets are currently limited.
• Rural Development – $4.4 million in grants to help 23 local business cooperatives in 19 states. The member-driven and member-owned cooperative business model has been successful for rural enterprises and brings rural communities closer to the process of moving from production-to-consumption as they work to improve products and expand appeal in the marketplace.
• USDA's Rural Development will also announce a Rural Business Opportunity Grant in the amount of $150,000 to the Northwest Food Processors Association. The grant will strengthen the relationship between local food processors and customers in parts of Idaho, Oregon and Washington and will also help the group reduce energy consumption, a major cost for food processors.

Advocates of buying locally produced foods cite safety and transportation-energy costs as primary factors in the dialogue.

Michael Abelman, founder and executive director emeritus of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, as well as a recognized practitioner of sustainable agriculture and proponent of regional food systems, commented about the government movement:

“We (society) are part of a broad movement reclaiming food from faceless, long-distance industrial providers. We're demanding not only that it be safe, but that it taste good – and that it be grown in a way that honors the land and those doing the work. And while it's true that we could slip up and make someone sick, the results of any carelessness would be smaller, more local.

“Food safety doesn't hinge on monitoring tiny bacteria. It depends on the most fundamental aspect of a healthy food system – relationships – biological, personal, ecological and local. Those relationships are on a scale small and, so, familiar.”

Vilsack solicits the campaign in a YouTube video and encourages consumer feedback to help shape the $65 million promotion at the campaign Web site via e-mails or comments via Twitter.

“Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” poses the question, “Every family needs a farmer. Do you know yours?”

Will the campaign be successful in its goals to create awareness and change? What reforms/modifications to the food system should the USDA consider? Should any agribusinesses be concerned?

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