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AMS Service Solutions Help Farmers and Handlers Make All the Right Moves

It takes a village to get those red ripe watermelon or sweet ears of corn to the neighborhood grocery store at the right time for consumers. Producers must decide when to plant and pick crops, package produce, find buyers and select the right shipper to transport products to market. Hundreds of people and thousands of decisions are needed to get the fruits and vegetables people love to stores at peak freshness. And to make sure everything gets done right, many producers and handlers rely on trusted resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

Philly Market Rises Up to Meet Hunger Challenge

Did you know that nearly one-third of the food available to U.S. retailers and consumers never makes it to the dining room table?  That’s 133 billion pounds of food going to waste--all of which has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation, and climate change.  Experts have projected that reducing food waste by just 15 percent would provide the equivalent of enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year.

That’s why my agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), decided to help tackle the problem by sponsoring the Terminal Market Food Waste Challenge.  Produce markets across the U.S. joined the friendly 90-day competition by making sure that usable fruits and vegetables were not thrown away.  While these fresh foods weren’t picture-perfect supermarket quality or simply didn’t sell, they were healthy, wholesome foods that could be made into juices, added to animal feeds, used for compost, or donated to charity.

Small Start-Up Brings Big Change for Philly Communities

It all started with one truck—one truck and the idea that bringing fresh, healthy foods into Philly communities was just a question of coordination.  For Haile Johnston and his wife, Tatiana Garcia-Granados, founding Common Market was the logical solution to solve the food access issues they saw in the communities around them.

“The core of Common Market is selling to schools and hospitals,” said Johnston. “Historically, they have been the hardest institutions to reach. They serve the most vulnerable population. That’s why we focus on partnering with schools and hospitals.”

Their food hub business model connects local farmers in the rural Mid-Atlantic region with wholesale customers in urban areas.  In their first year, Common Market worked with only a dozen farmers and had 22 customers, but they kept growing—adding trucks and building relationships with local family farms and institutional buyers in urban communities.

Local Food Leaders Take a Break to Hang Out

What do Tristan Reader of Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), Amy Bacigalupo of the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, Haile Johnston of Common Market in Philadelphia and Michael Todd’s environmental studies class at Ames High School in Ames, IA have in common? They’re all building connections between farms and consumers and creating strong local food systems in their communities.  And all joined me for a Google+ Hangout – a live, virtual panel – on Thursday, November 21 to discuss their work.

There is amazing energy surrounding the development of local food systems in communities nationwide, and our discussion certainly reflected that. But it also came at a time of uncertainty. Congress has yet to pass a Food, Farm and Jobs bill, the major piece of legislation funding USDA’s local food efforts (along with many other critical programs). Until a bill is passed, many of the key resources for producers, businesses and communities engaged in local food systems are without funding. That reality lent a sense of urgency to some of the topics we discussed.

Philadelphia Fights Hunger Through Academic, Faith and Community Partnerships

The City of Brotherly Love puts its motto into practice. I saw this firsthand when I travelled to Philadelphia to meet with a network of community leaders who partner with USDA through its Summer Food Service Program. With this program, USDA subsidizes nutritious summer lunches for students who need them and works with community partners to deliver those meals.

In Philadelphia, about 22% of children live in households that have trouble putting enough food on the table for every member of the family. That means when school is out, and school meals are not available, many kids are vulnerable. The Summer Food Service Program plays a critical role in making sure kids have access to nutritious meals so that they can begin the school year well nourished and alert.  My friend and former director of the White House’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives during the George W. Bush Administration, Professor John DiIulio, invited me to Philadelphia where he currently works at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fox Leadership Program.

Super Storm Sandy Whips Up Super Recovery Satisfaction

Disasters create pain.  And recovery from disasters creates partnerships and opportunity.

That is the lesson Liang Shao Hua learned in the past year after Tropical Storm Sandy, also known as Super Storm Sandy, destroyed his New Jersey high-tunnel farming operation and left him wondering how to manage his loss.

Liang, a Chinese American with very limited English proficiency, relied first on his American-born son, Peter, a 21-year-old college student studying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York. Peter obtained USDA paperwork from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) that helped his father apply for Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) funds.  He, his brother, David, 19, and mother, Pei Yin, joined Liang in the clean-up efforts.

Liang Shao Hua was among 315 successful applicants for ECP, one-third from New Jersey.  The applicants stretched from West Virginia to New Hampshire. That was the wide swath where Sandy and her trailing cold front left a path of destruction to Atlantic Coast and New England farms.

Bringing Federal Partners to the Local Foods Table

Three years ago this fall, Secretary Vilsack and I launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative (KYF2).  Since then, we’ve seen interest and participation in local and regional food systems grow beyond anything we expected: whether I’m meeting with buffalo ranchers from the Great Plains or with members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I hear about efforts to connect producers and consumers locally and interest in how USDA can help.

In meetings of the White House Rural Council, which has representatives from across the federal government, regional food systems have been a key part of discussions.

In Pennsylvania, Farmers Markets Offer Opportunity to Producers and Communities

Pennsylvania is among the country’s top ten states represented in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory.  I recently completed a trip through the Fruit Belt to the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia to see how USDA’s support of farmers market development is impacting communities and helping farmers across the Keystone State.

My first stop was Camp Hill, a small town outside Harrisburg, to visit a new farmers market developed with the assistance of community organizations including   Capital Resource and Conservation & Development Area Council (Capital RC&D).  Capital RC&D received a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program grant to help farmers markets improve their consumer outreach and receive EBT and debit payments to expand micro-business opportunities for the area’s local farmers.  The market, which just opened in May, is off to a great start with over a dozen vendors selling local bread, meat,  dairy and produce from Pennsylvania’s fruit belt.

Good Food for All People: Food Hubs at Work in Philadelphia

There are many communities across the country grappling with limited access to affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables at a time when these same communities are fighting rising rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses. The very definition of community—that inter-connectedness between residents, businesses, hospitals and schools—means that health or food issues that affect one part of the community can have a negative impact on the rest.