RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is going local. In an effort to get both consumers as well as schools, hospitals, and other institutions to purchase locally grown food, the agency launched a "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, which will provide $65 million in funding to farmers and small-grower coops for things like direct marketing and grants that will help them cut costs on processing and shipping.
THE DETAILS: In a press release about the new program, Vilsack was quoted as saying, "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." Merrigan also noted that the program will help farmers develop strong local and regional food systems, and promote sustainable agricultural practices. How the agency plans to do that is still unclear. The secretaries announced four specific initiatives aimed at promoting the use of local food in schools, hospitals, and health care facilities; creating a cooperative program that will provide opportunities for small meat producers to sell their products across state lines; establishing new farmer and business cooperatives; and creating a grant for food processors in the Pacific Northwest that will help them reduce energy consumption. Aside from those, they said that efforts will be made to "use existing USDA programs to break down structural barriers that have inhibited local food systems from thriving."
WHAT IT MEANS: This is welcome news for anyone who wants easier access to healthy, fresh, locally-grown food. "On the face of it, it looks great," says Jessica Prentice, the local food advocate who coined the term "locavore" in 2004 and who wrote a book on the benefits of eating local called Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.
"This is what we want our USDA to be doing, connecting people to their food source." And it also means healthier food for the planet. "When you start to go local and get to know your farmer, it inevitably pushes things to a more humane, sustainable approach," Prentice says. When you're asking a farmer what he sprays on his crops or whether another allows her chickens to run free, "the farmer becomes accountable to you," she says.