BY CHRISTINE SOUZA
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has unveiled a framework to address “a litany of challenges” in order to transform the U.S. food system to become more resilient and help farmers, producers and consumers.
“We live in a great time of disruption,” Vilsack said during a live-stream appearance, in which he announced the release of the USDA Food System Transformation Framework. “A transformed food system is part of how we as a country become more resilient and competitive in the face of these big and future challenges and threats.”
Referencing challenges of the pandemic, changing climate, supply-chain disruptions, inflation and more, Vilsack said it is important to strengthen the country’s food system across all aspects of the supply chain.
He also called for building on lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis and resulting supply-chain disruptions. Transforming the nation’s food system, Vilsack said, must be comprehensive and touch on four elements: production, processing, food distribution and aggregation, and market development.
Vilsack noted that the program and policies announced are at different stages, with some deployed now and others happening in the next few months, with resources obligated by the end of the year.
“A transformed food system will deliver a better deal for farmers, ranchers and growers and consumers through more new and better markets while also stimulating our rural economy,” Vilsack said.
Republican leaders criticized the framework, noting that much of the funding draws from the American Rescue Plan Act and other pandemic-era relief already allotted to USDA.
“Our global food-supply system faces severe challenges that require serious responses,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. In a statement, he said the proposal “misses the mark and fails to meet the moment.”
Ranking member U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., said in a statement that the framework “blatantly ignores the skyrocketing inflation rates and input costs that are crushing America’s producers, compounded by the administration’s burdensome regulatory overreach.”
In answering a question posed by the USA Rice Federation about what USDA is doing to secure and protect U.S. agricultural production and processing to maintain food security domestically and overseas, Vilsack said, “Part of it is trying to address the congestion problems; part of it is trying to make sure that we have relationships with other countries so that markets remain open.
“There’s a series of steps that we’re taking in effort to try to continue to expand export opportunities,” Vilsack said, adding that USDA is working with ocean carriers and ports to solve congestion.
The framework includes investments in programs to boost local food production and help small, midsize and beginning farmers with up to $300 million in a new initiative to support farmers transitioning to organic production and up to $75 million to support urban agriculture, including outreach and training.
Monterey County organic farmer Javier Zamora of Watsonville, owner of JSM Organics, spoke of the framework’s investment in organic farmers to help those transitioning to organic production.
“Now that I feel a little comfortable that my business is moving forward, I can share with others what the resources are and where to go and get (them),” Zamora said. “How can you make something happen if you don’t have the tools?”
Zamora also said, “A part of this program will help us connect with end consumers who are sometimes not educated on who is producing the food and where it’s coming from.”
To build resiliency in the food supply chain, Vilsack announced framework programs that encourage investments in independently owned food processing, distribution and aggregation infrastructure.
Investments include: up to $375 million in support for independent meat and poultry processors; up to $100 million to support development of trained processing workers; $200 million to help specialty crops with food safety program expenses, and up to $600 million in financial assistance for food supply-chain infrastructure such as cold storage.
To increase infrastructure to help gather, move and hold food, Vilsack announced $400 million to create regional food business centers that will provide coordination, technical assistance and capacity building support to small and midsize food and farm businesses. He also announced $60 million for farm-to-school programs and up to $90 million to prevent and reduce food loss and waste.
The framework dedicates millions of dollars in nutrition programs for underserved families, as well as other programs that are aimed at addressing food insecurity.
USDA also intends to improve access to markets for consumers by investing $155 million in grants and loans to those offering healthy food in underserved communities.
To learn more about the Food System Transformation Framework, visit www.usda.gov.