Friday, August 28, 2009

Weekly Food Roundup - More tomatoes, Federal Loans and Secretary Vilsack

*Weekly Food Roundup is a weekly recap of local, national and global food issues as they play out online, in print and in our everyday lives. Check back every Friday for new installments.*


Every morning of this week a handful of VISTAs and Monte continued the inevitable college farm task: picking sweetcorn and tomatoes. Though we thought the corn was all picked-through and finished last week, this morning Monte drove us back to a swathe of untouched sweetcorn planted amid the grain crop on one of the college's land parcels.

We picked 100 dozen ears before moving to the tomatoes, which are ripening faster than many community groups can distribute them. We stopped after picking 150 lbs. today, even though another 100 lbs. could easily have been picked. The two organizations we delivered to today, Sugartree Ministries and Clinton County Community Action, simply can't process any more than that. I suppose that's better than the alternative: hungry people and not enough food.

***

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan released a memo [PDF] on Wednesday titled "Harnessing USDA rural development programs to support local and regional food systems," in which she highlights a number of exciting and overlooked grant opportunities for strengthening our local food systems.

The memo is broken into three sections, each highlighting how an already existing federal loan program could help rural food development. Merrigan posits a hypothetical at the beginning of each section, asking "What if?" to a number of scenarios.
"Imagine an NGO receiving USDA grant money to construct a community kitchen where farmers drop off produce and families join cooking classes that teach about healthy eating while everyone prepares fresh nutritious meals to bring home...Imagine a community using USDA money to construct an open-sided structure to house a farmers market...Imagine a school using USDA loan money to set up cold storage as part of a larger effort to retrofit the school cafeteria to buy produce directly from farmers and return cooking capacity to school lunch...Imagine..."
However whimsical the introductions to the sections may be, Merrigan gets down to business in discussing the practical application of millions of dollars (some $961 million) of stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for our rural areas.

As is often the case with federal funds, there is a bottleneck between the state and federal level and the community level. City governments and non-profits don't know how to navigate the bureaucracy and red-tape associated with federal funding, and the feds are slow to release those available funds.

Regardless, Merrigan provides a lot of hope for rural food systems. It's refreshing to see this type of memo coming from the desk of the deputy secretary of the USDA.

***

More from the USDA front: In addition to establishing this week as National Community Gardening week, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Wednesday a new USDA volunteer program to get people involved with the department's People's Garden Initiative.

Located at the USDA headquarters in Washington, the People's Garden is a demonstration garden of sorts highlighting the benefits of small-scale food production. It's yet another refreshing example of this growing awareness of local, healthy food. The more people get out and volunteer with gardening and farm projects, the better. Kudos, Mr. Vilsack.

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