Washington, D.C. – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan recently announced a new initiative – 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' – to begin a national conversation to help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity.
To launch the initiative, Vilsack recorded a video to invite Americans to join the discussion and share their ideas for ways to support local agriculture. The video, one of many means by which USDA will engage in this conversation, can be viewed at USDA's YouTube channel. Producers and consumers can comment on the 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' YouTube playlist, as well as submit videos or provide comments on this initiative by e-mailing KnowYourFarmer@usda.gov .
"Americans who are more engaged with their food supply will create new income opportunities for American agriculture," Vilsack says. "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 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative, chaired by Merrigan, is the focus of a task force with representatives from agencies across USDA who will help better align the department's efforts to build stronger local and regional food systems. In the first week of the program, USDA announced approximately $65 million in funding for 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiatives.
"Americans are more interested in food and agriculture than at any other time since most families left the farm," Merrigan says. "'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' seeks to focus that conversation on supporting local and regional food systems to strengthen American agriculture by promoting sustainable agricultural practices and spurring economic opportunity in rural communities."
In the months to come, cross-cutting efforts at USDA will seek to use existing USDA programs to break down structural barriers that have inhibited local food systems from thriving. USDA announced a small initial group of moves that seek to connect local production and consumption and promote local-scale sustainable operations:
● USDA's Risk Management Agency announced $3.4 million in funding for collaborative outreach and assistance programs to socially disadvantaged and underserved farmers. These programs will support 'Know You 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.
● USDA's Rural Development announced $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 their products and expand their appeal in the marketplace.
● USDA's Rural Development also announced 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.
Merrigan also has announced a new initiative to better connect children to their food and create opportunities for local farmers to provide their harvest to schools in their communities as part of the 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) will team together and form 'Farm to School Tactical Teams' to assist school administrators as they transition to purchasing more locally grown foods. The agencies will also issue updated common-sense purchasing guidance to schools so they can buy fresh, locally grown produce for students eating through USDA's school nutrition programs. Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Julie Paradis made the announcement on Merrigan's behalf at the Homegrown School Lunch Week Kickoff in Hanover, Maryland.
"It is important that our children have access to healthy, nutritious food and our focus on enabling schools to purchase local produce will provide opportunities for local producers," Merrigan says. "This will enable greater wealth creation in communities by allowing producers to build their capacity by serving local institutional customers like schools."
USDA's Farm-To-School Tactical Teams will begin touring America's school cafeterias to identify challenges and opportunities to help them transition to purchasing more locally grown foods. The team will work with local farmers, local and state authorities, school districts, and community partners to develop Farm-To-School projects and provide assistance on the best ways to buy more local produce for the National School Lunch Program. USDA will partner with schools, the U.S. Department of Education and non-profits to develop and enhance these resources. Additional information will be made available soon.
As part of this announcement, USDA will make $50 million available for schools to buy local produce. The 2008 Farm Bill gave the department new flexibilities to procure local fresh fruits and vegetables for the school lunch program. Using that flexibility, USDA is proposing that schools now be able to arrange to buy fresh produce grown locally through their state agencies.
USDA will also write common sense guidelines for schools to procure food. To date, the department has allowed only minimal processing of regional fruits and vegetables purchased for our school meals programs. USDA will now allow additional processing like cutting or slicing, and will work to fashion policies that will allow year-round produce in areas with short growing seasons.
As the 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative evolves, USDA will continue to build on the momentum and ideas from the 2008 Farm Bill and target its existing programs and develop new ones to pursue sustainable agriculture and support for local and regional food systems.