RIO PIEDRAS, P.R., June 2, 2016 — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced several measures to strengthen rural opportunity in Puerto Rico, including that the Eastern Region of Puerto Rico has been selected as a federal Promise Zone. Vilsack made the announcement at the conclusion of a three-day trip to Puerto Rico, where he met with elected officials and agricultural and economic leaders to discuss USDA's efforts to support rural communities. Today's measures are in addition to the more than $20 billion USDA has already invested in Puerto Rico since 2009.
"Rural areas like Eastern Puerto Rico face unique challenges, and we are committed to matching those challenges with creative solutions to help strengthen communities," said Vilsack. "The Promise Zones initiative has produced proven results by encouraging collaboration between the federal government, community organizations, the private sector and state and local governments. Through these partnerships, we are supporting jobs and economic opportunities that enable rural areas to thrive."
In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced the launch of the Promise Zone initiative to target federal and private resources to high-poverty urban, rural and tribal communities. Through the Promise Zone initiative, USDA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and 10 other federal agencies are partnering with and investing in communities, providing tailored assistance based on the specific needs of a community. The initiative also promotes collaboration between private businesses and federal, state, and local officials; faith-based and non-profit organizations; and striving kids and parents. The purpose of the initiative is to create jobs, leverage private investment, increase economic activity, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety. Without this federal commitment, it can be difficult for these communities to break through barriers and navigate through the available assistance on their own.
The Eastern Puerto Rico Promise Zone (EPRPZ) will accelerate redevelopment to benefit the wider Eastern Region of Puerto Rico through job creation, increasing economic activity and access to health care. The primary goals are to: create jobs by boosting tourism and development, attracting film and TV production to Puerto Rico, establish an environmentally and technologically advanced ship recycling facility as well as constructing marinas, and establishing a logistics and distribution hub for surrounding islands; improve educational opportunities; reduce violent crimes by refurbishing the prison facilities and improving prisoner re-entry programs; promote health by developing a food hub and a commercial scale hydroponic farm with teaching kitchens and a food business incubator; and construct safe and affordable housing.
Vilsack also announced today two nutrition-related measures that USDA will take in Puerto Rico. At the request of the Commonwealth, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has approved a 17-percent increase in school meal reimbursement rates for Puerto Rico to reflect their higher costs of providing school meals. The rate adjustment will take effect beginning July 1, 2016, for School Year 2016-17 and will result in approximately $25 million annually in additional federal outlays. This increase is based on data indicating that the cost of producing school lunches, breakfasts, and snacks are higher than those in the continental US, as well as other factors impacting Puerto Rico's school meals program. Approval of the increase can help ensure the continuing stability of school nutrition programs for Puerto Rico's children during a time when the Commonwealth is experiencing financial challenges in other government areas that prevent them from providing additional state funds to the school meals programs.
Additionally, USDA is making permanent a pilot program called the Family Market pilot program, which promotes local agriculture economy and the consumption of locally grown fresh food by allowing Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) participants to use their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to purchase food at participating farmers markets. NAP participants redeem a set portion of their benefits for local agriculture products at the 44 NAP Family Markets. The participating farmers use battery-operated mobile point of sale devices to process the EBT transactions, allowing them to do so even when electricity is not available at the market. The initiative helps ensure access to fresh, healthy food, while also supporting local farmers and ranchers who are selling at the farmers markets and keeping more of the food dollars in the local economy. To date almost $40 million in NAP benefits have been directed back to the local agricultural economy. Supporting strong local and regional food systems is one of USDA's four pillars to revitalize rural economies.
While in Puerto Rico, Vilsack convened a financial roundtable with local investors, financial leaders, economists and entrepreneurs to stimulate a conversation surrounding economic opportunities in rural Puerto Rico and how to leverage federal and private resources. During this administration, USDA invested nearly $2.5 billion to support affordable housing, create jobs and promote economic opportunity for those who live, work and raise their families in rural Puerto Rico as well as $209 million in infrastructure development, including broadband and telecommunications, water and wastewater, and construction of community facilities like fire stations and libraries.
Vilsack also met with members of the Puerto Rican agricultural production sector, including farmers, ranchers, livestock producers, and specialty crop producers, and Dr. Myrna Comas, Secretary of Agriculture for Puerto Rico, and Pablo Jimenez, president of the College of Agronomist for Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has a total of 637,000 acres of agriculture land, with a total of 13,000 farmers. During the last few years, agriculture has become one of the most effective economic development industries in the Commonwealth. Great challenges exist in the sector, including high energy costs, vulnerability to climate change, and market development. This meeting served as an opportunity to discuss partnerships, particularly in conservation and marketing, to help Puerto Rican producers seize on the productivity of their natural resources as well as adaptation and mitigation of climate change in the Caribbean.
In April 2015, USDA announced that Puerto Rico would join the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative works to address the unique set of challenges faced by many of America's rural communities. Through StrikeForce, USDA is leveraging resources and collaborating with partners and stakeholders to improve economic opportunity and quality of life in these areas. These efforts have invested more than $331 million in Puerto Rico (PDF, 515 KB) in 2015 alone to create jobs, build homes, feed kids, assist farmers and conserve natural resources. Throughout the life of the program, USDA has invested $23.5 billion across 25 StrikeForce states and Puerto Rico.
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