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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Proposes Integrated Plan for National Food Production

The Biden administration has set aside billions of dollars to help the country’s food supply chain recover from the coronavirus pandemic — and, more recently, the looming global effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and on Wednesday, she announced new funding and a comprehensive look at how these initiatives fit together.

“A transformed food system is part of how we, as a country, become more resilient and competitive in the face of these significant and future challenges and threats,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday. ‘Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

The country’s meat processing capacity has been a priority since the pandemic revealed its deficient resilience, in part due to industry consolidation over the years. The four major meatpackers control 85% of the beef market, 70% of pork and more than 50% of chicken, the White House said.

As a result, when large processing facilities were shut down by the spread of the coronavirus, farmers lost a significant portion of their sales markets and some were forced to euthanize their animals.

“It happened in Iowa,” Vilsack said. “A processing plant closed because the company just didn’t pay attention to the pandemic. Too many of their workers got sick and some of them died tragically. So they had to close the factory. When they closed the plant, the farmers had no place to market their hogs.

The meatpacking consolidation was the result of a push for efficiency, but the pandemic has shown it must be balanced with resilience, Vilsack concluded.

In response, the USDA created the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program to provide up to $375 million to help create or expand small, independent processors. The first phase of the program which recently closed to applications is set to distribute approximately $150 million in grants. Funding requests totaled more than $800 million, the USDA reported.

This program falls under the “transformation” category of the USDA’s recently announced Food System Transformation Framework, which targets four aspects of the food supply: production, processing, distribution, and markets.

New program supports shift to organic production

Vilsack on Wednesday announced a new $300 million program to help farmers switch to organic agricultural production. This includes setting up a mentorship program that matches new organic farmers with experienced farmers and provides financial assistance for initial costs.

Farmland typically undergoes a three-year transition period to organic farming. During this time, the crops are raised with organic practices but cannot be sold as organic until the end of this period. Vilsack said part of the newly announced program will expand organic food markets. The USDA had previously earmarked $20 million for similar assistance.

Other notable announcements from Wednesday include:

— $75 million to support urban agriculture.

— $600 million for cold stores, refrigerated trucks and processing facilities that are not covered by the meat and poultry program.

— $40 million to train meat and poultry processing workers for small independent facilities.

— $155 million to increase the availability of healthier foods in smaller and underserved communities.

A fuller account of USDA programs to transform the nation’s food supply chain is here. The USDA also plans to spend up to $400 million to create a network of “Food Business Centers” that can help people navigate federal assistance available to them.

This story was published earlier by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network that includes the Florida Phoenix.

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