Ag Market Service plugs local food’s role in pandemic recovery, build back better for farmers

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
A new dairy donation program is being modeled on USDA’s Farmers to Family Food Box Program, which ends this month. The new program was included in a $6 billion package of pandemic relief initiatives announced back in March, as USDA seeks ways to support local and regional food systems while providing food assistance to those in need.

Officials with the federal Ag Marketing Service are pledging to build on momentum from the emergency pandemic response to better support local and regional food systems, emphasizing that “building back better” will require strengthening supply chain resiliency by decentralizing food production and distribution.

The agency’s Local Food Systems Response to Covid project grew out of the crisis that erupted last spring when a highly contagious and lethal virus spread across the globe and forced the economy to shutter nonessential businesses, causing many institutional marketing channels to disappear overnight.

Colorado State University’s Food Systems team, which worked in close collaboration with USDA’s response effort, estimated the disruption cost nearly $7 million in economic losses from March to May of 2020 in Colorado alone, calling that a conservative estimate.

During the final webinar in a six-month series, AMS officials recounted the federal agency’s response and addressed what’s next for its local food systems initiative.

The agency’s quick response was unprecedented in terms of sheer size and scope, according to Samatha Schaffstall, a local food research and development specialist. AMS enlisted 17 national organizations involved in multiple facets of direct marketing, from farmers markets to farm-to-school initiatives to independent chefs, and also engaged academic research partners such as CSU, to provide information and resources.

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Schaffstall said they are now hoping to expand that collaboration to include regional and minority organizations, including tribal fisheries, black farmer groups and more.

Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Mae Wu, who served as senior director at the Natural Resource Defense Council before joining USDA, said the agency is using what it learned from targeted programs such as the $1.4 billion Farmers to Family Food Box CSA-style program to design future programs.

The Food Box program concludes at the end of this month, largely because more relief aid is going directly into people’s pockets to be spent as they wish, she said. But it has been a critical source of input for future initiatives, including a new dairy donation program that will help producers while also assisting those in need.

“We learned a lot,” she concluded. “People loved the fresh produce, and what we learned is USDA can do procurement (of this type).”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is committed to making local and regional food systems a central focus of the government’s coronavirus recovery efforts, she said, by supporting new market opportunities, enhanced revenue streams and more niche and value-added products, as well as giving special attention to underserved communities, she said.

Most recently Secretary Vilsack voiced concern over the farmer’s shrinking share of the consumer food dollar, which has fallen to a new low of 14 cents.

“Now is the time to transform our food system to create a fairer, more transparent system, so at the end of the day more of that dollar ends up in a farmer’s pocket,” he commented on social media.

So how will AMS and USDA contribute to that effort? Wu acknowledged that local procurement is a challenge for an institution that buys in large bulk quantities, saying her department was open to feedback and potential solutions.

One avenue for input is the open comment period on the president’s supply chain executive order, announced in February. The comment period closed on April 28.

“We want to hear from you,” Wu said. “A lot of the procurement we do is on a large scale. Are there things we can do to bring small farmers together?”

In addition, she said USDA has appointed Andy Green to serve as senior advisor for fair and competitive markets. He was previously a senior fellow for economic policy at the Center for American Progress.

“It is clearly something the secretary wants us to tackle,” Wu said.

Schaffstall said the agency’s future work on local-regional food systems would mostly focus on three pillars: network building, technical assistance and research.

Over the past year, federal and state governments as well as nongovernmental organizations have increased the amount of grant awards being offered specifically to build local and regional food infrastructure.

AMS is providing technical assistance to help qualified entities access that money.

Secretary Vilsack also recently announced the department would provide pandemic assistance to minority producers who had slipped through the cracks in previous rounds of aid. Since the spring, USDA has dedicated at least $6 billion to new programs, which include the dairy donation initiative.

Schaffstall said the pandemic response showed the agency could be “flexible and adapt to fit the needs on the ground,” adding that she hoped the “mission-driven focus” would become the norm moving forward.

The agency’s current attention to local and regional food systems is not new, according to JuliAnna Arnett, a senior marketing specialist who also participated in the webinar.

“It has had many variations over the years, but it dates back to the 1970s at USDA, so I’m building on a long legacy of programs,” she said.

More:How Colorado food businesses diversified during the COVID-19 pandemic

She is currently working to “find a common agenda across local and regional food systems, identify shared activities, and improve communication and information gathering, and how we coordinate that,” she said.

One important area she cited was “value chain coordination work” — helping producers figure out the existing market opportunities and where to “plug in” along the supply chain — as well as continuing to expand the network of collaboration and information sharing that started during the pandemic.

She also cited a need for more data and metrics, better integration of online platforms, and more cooperation between local and regional food systems.

The agency intends to create a new consortium to “keep the conversation going,” she said.

For now, fresh resources and information are still being added to the dedicated website at LFSCovid.LocalFoodEconomies.com.

“The pandemic is not over. We are not in the resiliency and recovery phase yet,” Schaffstall noted. “There’s still a lot of need out in the field.