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Billions in mystery from USDA

usda build back better

Last week USDA said it plans to invest $1 billion to support and build up the country’s food bank network, and this week it announced a $4 billion investment to strengthen the nation’s food system.

“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money,” goes the famous quote attributed to Everett Dirksen, the long-serving Republican Senator in the 1950s and 1960s.

Naturally, we want to know what’s in all those billion for the fresh produce industry.

United Fresh’s BB #:145458 senior vice president of policy Robert Guenther said June 8 that we’re not sure, but “I’m sure produce companies will be eligible.”

Some of the uncertainty may be cleared up at 3 p.m. Eastern June 9, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack holds a webinar on it.

USDA says, “The new efforts aim to strengthen the food system, create new market opportunities, tackle the climate crisis, create opportunity in underserved communities, and support good-paying jobs throughout the supply chain.

“The new investments will support food production, improved processing, investments in distribution and aggregation, and market opportunities. Through the Build Back Better initiative, USDA will help to ensure the food system of the future is fair, competitive, distributed, and resilient; supports health with access to healthy, affordable food; ensures growers and workers receive a greater share of the food dollar; and advances equity as well as climate resilience and mitigation.”

Guenther said USDA may have been prodded into action – or at least more talk – by a May 26 letter from Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee, which pressured USDA to “quickly implement provisions passed as part of the American Rescue Plan to protect food and farm workers and build resilience into the nation’s agricultural supply chain.”

“This is also an opportunity to better prepare the food supply chain in the event of a future disruptive event, and I urge USDA to assess how the weak points in the supply chain can be addressed,” Stabenow wrote in the letter.

Guenther said these are brand new programs, and it’s not clear how fresh produce fits in yet, but they more closely resemble traditional hunger relief from government.

“They’re not being creative, and that doesn’t help fresh produce,” he said. “We would support programs that help fruits and vegetables directly.”

By comparison, the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program ran from May 15, 2020 to May 31, 2021, delivered more than 173 million boxes of fresh food, and reimbursed growers and distributors more than $6 billion.


Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services