Organic farming and the local food movement just got a boost from the government to the tune of $52 million.
The United States Department of Agriculture announced the new spending on Monday, as part of an effort to shepherd through more local or regional food systems, food hubs, and farmers markets, and to encourage research into organic farming. The money will come in the form of grants, and was made possible by a tiny slice of the mammoth — and highly contentious — farm bill that passed back in February of this year.
The bulk of the effort — about $27 million — will go as competitive grants to support local food efforts such as food hubs, local processors, and farm-to-table efforts through marketing and other logistics. Another $19 million will go to support scientific projects and new research to help out organic farmers already in operation. Community efforts to help low-income households and individuals tap into local food systems will get almost $5 million, spread across 22 projects in 16 states.
“These types of local food systems are the cornerstones of our plans to revitalize the rural economy,” Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, told the New York Times in an interview. “If you can connect local produce with markets that are local, money gets rolled around in the local community more directly compared to commercial agriculture where products get shipped in large quantities somewhere else, helping the economy there.”
According to the Times, the $52 million is this year’s outlay to local and organic food efforts, part of an ongoing spending commitment by the bill to the tune of $291 million — triple the previous commitment. About $125 million of that will go into research to help out organic farming, and another $50 million of it will ultimately serve various conservation programs.
The spending will be of particular importance to the America’s poorest citizens. A study released in September found that poor and low-income Americans are being left behind as eating habits have improved and become healthier throughout the rest of the population. The reason being that the poor are often are often stuck in what are called “food deserts” — areas where the community’s purchasing power is so low grocery store chains don’t find it profitable to set up shop. This leaves the residents with no easy access to fresh and healthy food, and they wind up buying from corner gas stations, take out, and fast food chains instead. The result is significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other ailments among the poor.
Nor did February’s farm bill help in this regard, as it cut $8 billion from nutritional assistance for poor Americans — though states had various options for clawing that money back.
But small and highly-distributed local farming efforts can help address the problem, especially in urban areas, by reconnecting impoverished neighborhoods with a healthy food system. In Washington, D.C. specifically, the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) is engaged in an effort to set up food hubs — a local urban farm connected to a farmers market, local classes in cooking and food handling, and start-up jobs for residents in food preparation and distribution — throughout the city’s low-income communities. According to Sabine O’Hara, the dean of the college, told ThinkProgress that UDC is also carrying out a number of research projects to help those urban farms operate with renewable electricity, minimal energy use, environmentally-friendly fertilization methods, and more.
One result of increased local farming and food hubs is that people wind up cooking their own food more and eating out less, which comes with positive impacts for nutrition and body weight. It can also come with climate benefits: shipping distances for food are cut way down, which almost always shakes out to lower fossil fuel use, but more importantly less food is wasted because both customers and distributors buy and sell the food in smaller and more manageable chunks. Right now, the United States throws out roughly 40 percent of the food it produces — primarily on the consumption end — which means all the fossil fuels and energy that goes into growing that 40 percent is wasted as well.
Vilsack told the Times that right now there are about 300 food hubs around the United States, so the goal here is to keep pushing the expansion.
“Small and medium-sized operations end up helping to generate more employment than commercial operations because of their different distribution systems and their local natures,” Vilsack continued. “And food hubs hire about 20 people on average.”