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Local foods has a seat at table

MARSHALL -- No knock against convenience stores, but the United States Department of Agriculture is changing focus to support the development of farmers markets, food processing and cold storage facilities in rural communities, according to Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To underscore his department's commitment to invest in the infrastructure needed to expand the local foods economy, Vilsack took a swipe at what he said were the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by USDA Rural Development under the previous administration in opening convenience stores in rural areas.

Vilsack spoke Tuesday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall at the third annual Home Grown Economy conference hosted by U.S. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

The local foods movement has the attention and the support of the federal government today, according to Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

It's simple, according to Peterson: There is a market for local foods, and agriculture stands to gain jobs and income by serving it.

At the same time, he emphasized that there "is room for everybody in agriculture." The expansion of a local foods economy can occur alongside of -- and not at the expense of -- commodity-based agriculture

Vilsack said the "first and foremost" role for the government in local foods is to help expand the markets. He said the USDA has counted 108,000 new farmers nationwide who are reporting sales of under $10,000 annually. Most are obviously targeting local food opportunities.

Expanding markets will help these entry-level farmers grow to become mid-sized and more sustaining operations, according to the secretary.

He wants the government to do more to make local foods a part of the school lunch program. He also proposed offering discounts for the purchase of local foods as part of the Women, Infants and Children and Supplemental Nutrition programs.

The agriculture secretary also wants to see more done to bring grocery stores offering local and fresh produce to urban "food deserts," where only highly processed foods are now available.

But importantly, he said the USDA Rural Development micro-business investments and block grant programs will be doing more to help rural communities build the infrastructure to increase the local foods production capacity to serve the markets.

His department is also working to remove the regulatory barriers that hold back the growth of the local foods economy, according to Vilsack.

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