The Biden administration has committed billions of dollars to help the country’s food supply chain recover from the coronavirus pandemic — and more recently, the looming global impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Wednesday, it announced new funding and a comprehensive overview of how these initiatives mesh.
“A transformed food system helps make us more resilient and competitive as a country in the face of these major and future challenges and threats,” US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Wednesday at Georgetown University in Washington, DC
The country’s meat-processing capabilities have taken center stage since the pandemic exposed its insufficient resilience, in part due to the industry’s consolidation over the years. The top four meatpackers control 85% of the beef market, 70% of the pork market and more than 50% of the chicken market, according to the White House.
As major processing plants were shut down by the spreading coronavirus, ranchers lost a significant portion of their outlets, and some were forced to euthanize their animals.
“That happened in Iowa,” Vilsack said. “A processing plant was shut down because the company simply wasn’t paying attention to the pandemic. Too many of their workers fell ill and some of them died tragically. So they had to close the facility. When they closed the facility, the farmers had no place to market their pigs.”
Meatpacking consolidation was the result of a drive for efficiency, but the pandemic has shown that this must be balanced with resilience, Vilsack concluded.
In response, the USDA created the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program to allocate up to $375 million to support the creation or expansion of smaller, independent processing plants. The first phase of the program, recently closed to applications, is poised to distribute approximately $150 million in grants. Funding requests totaled more than $800 million, the USDA reported.
This program fits into the “processing” category of the USDA’s newly announced Food System Transformation Framework, which targets four aspects of the food supply: production, processing, distribution, and markets.
New program supports farmers in converting to organic production
Vilsack on Wednesday announced a new $300 million program to help farmers transition to organic farming. This includes the establishment of a mentoring program that matches aspiring organic farmers with experienced farmers and provides financial support for start-up costs.
Arable land usually goes through a three-year conversion phase to organic. During this period the crops will be grown using 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 allocated $20 million for similar assistance.
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Other notable announcements on Wednesday included:
— $75 million to support urban agriculture.
-$600 million for cold storage, refrigerated trucks and processing facilities not covered by the meat and poultry program.
— $40 million to train meat and poultry processing workers for smaller, independent facilities.
— $155 million to improve the availability of healthier food in smaller and underserved communities.
Learn more about the USDA’s programs to transform the country’s food supply chain is available here. The USDA also plans to spend up to $400 million to create a network of “food business centers” that can help people take advantage of the government assistance available to them.
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