by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation | Sept. 26, 2013

usda market

Last week, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and I met with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss how Surdna and other foundations might partner with USDA to strengthen rural-urban connections. We joined Secretary Vilsack and the four board co-chairs and executive director of AGree on the heels of their all-morning meeting. AGree is a unique, eight-year, philanthropy-supported initiative (including Surdna) to transform U.S. food and agriculture policy at home and abroad. Their four co-chairs and executive director are first-rate: former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, Gary Hirshberg, Chairman of Stoneyfield Farms, Jim Moseley, former USDA Deputy Secretary, Emmy Simmon formerly of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and executive director Deborah Atwood.

Surdna’s lens on the rural-urban connection is through our Next Generation Infrastructure strategy that includes efforts to rebuild regional food infrastructure. And we know that local and regional food system development is also important to Secretary Vilsack and the Administration. One important example of USDA’s emphasis in this area is the  Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative which coordinates the Department’s efforts to build stronger regional food systems by helping farmers gain local market entry points, assist farmers in diversifying their markets, create “value-added” jobs, and strengthen local food systems through branding and other means.

We discussed the growing public interest in, and demand for locally and sustainably produced food. Creating stronger local and regional food systems has been identified by the Secretary as one of his four top priorities. The other priorities are further expansion of markets for agricultural products at home and abroad; stronger conservation efforts; and growth of the bio-based economy.

USDA and others are studying opportunities in regional food systems. A 2010 USDA report notes that, while local food sellers have determined that consumers are willing to pay a premium if they know about the origins of local and regional food, the most serious constraint to the expansion of local foods is the “lack of distribution systems for moving local foods into mainstream markets.” The Department is looking into ways to address these issues through food hubs and other entrepreneurial infrastructure solutions.

At lunch the Secretary echoed comments he made earlier this year:

Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America's farmers and ranchers. Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers. By serving as a link between the farm or ranch and regional buyers, food hubs keep more of the retail food dollar circulating in the local economy. In effect, the success of regional food hubs comes from entrepreneurship, sound business sense and a desire for social impact.” 

Surdna sees rebuilding regional food systems as a critical “next generation infrastructure” issue, much like our country’s need to update the way we design, build and maintain transportation, water, and energy infrastructure. We believe that to create communities that are just and sustainable, these taxpayer-financed systems must be more resilient and efficient, benefit the natural environment, and improve services for all people and communities--especially those that have historically been underserved, or even cut off form opportunities because of poor infrastructure investments.

The supply chains that bring food to our tables are a critical piece of this infrastructure. But this system is practically invisible to most of us. Do you really know where the food on your plate came from, and how it got to you? Few of us understand that the current path from farm to market makes it harder to get an Iowa farmer’s potatoes to a local school or store than it is to get those same potatoes processed into a bag of potato chips a few thousand miles away.

The challenge is that the current food aggregation and distribution systems are highly consolidated. These industries are in the hands of a few massive agribusinesses whose dominance has choked off the regional supply chains that once connected independent farmers, ranchers, and their communities to urban markets and their consumers. This global system also results in resource consumption and pollution that impacts food quality, safety and access.

Surdna’s interest going into the meeting with Secretary Vilsack, was to identify ways we can better align federal government and philanthropic shared interests in rebuilding regional food systems and infrastructure, as well as to continue to collaborate with other funders in the sustainable agriculture and food system arena. In terms of cross sector support, Surdna is drawing on its experience collaborating with other federal agencies including HUD on the post-Sandy, ReBuild by Design project; EPA on innovative storm water management; and DOT on transportation procurement practices that will result in more US manufacturing jobs and other high quality transportation sector employment opportunities for disadvantaged workers.  We believe this experience positions us to work effectively with the Department toward building regional food system capacity.

We’ve already begun to collaborate with USDA in informal ways.  Last week in Memphis, Surdna sponsored the Sustainable Communities Leadership Academy training on Urban Agriculture & Sustainable Food Systems for ten cities committed to improving their urban-rural connections and regional food systems.  Key USDA staff comprised part of the resource training team, including the Department’s National Coordinator and Advisor for Local and Regional Food Systems.  And as part of the rural-urban linkage, it is worth noting that the training was guided, in part, by a report on food system connections commissioned by the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network – another Surdna grantee.  And after the Leadership Academy, USDA staff met with key officials in Memphis and adjacent cities and counties to explore regional food system opportunities.    

Relative to the size of government, philanthropy’s scale and ability to capitalize food system change is limited. I was reminded of this--and the importance of working in partnership--when Secretary Vilsack mentioned that, despite a $1 billion cut to its budget, USDA manages $175 billion in grants, loans, and other investments. By better understanding the Department’s--and other government investments in food systems--we hope to identify where best to provide some flexible funding to fill capacity building gaps that that the Department isn’t able to do.   

I left the meeting deeply impressed with Secretary Vilsack’s commitment to regenerating the various—and vital—pieces of our regional food system. And I look forward to our emerging partnership on regional food system innovations.

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