USDA Puts Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

Fruit, veggies, nuts, and other specialty crops receive federal grants.

Fruit, veggie, and nut producers will receive greater governmental support in 2011 from a new batch of block grants. (garussell11/Creative Commons)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

It hasn't gone unnoticed that First Lady Michelle Obama's accolades for fresh fruit and veggies haven't matched up with the subsidies her husband doles out to Big Ag. Of the top twenty crops receiving subsidies between 1995 and 2010, only one was a fruit crop. The effect of those subsidies trickles down to consumers, who find that their food dollars stretch farther on processed junkfood than on produce.

A recent announcement made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hints that change could be in the air.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced this week that the USDA will be investing in 55 specialty crop block grants that will fund 740 initiatives across the U.S. and its territories. Specialty crops include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops.

Initiatives include increasing nutritional knowledge and specialty crop consumption, enhancing food safety, developing new seed varieties and specialty crops, and explanding food access in food deserts.

"Agriculture plays a vital role in the health and strength of our economy," Merrigan said in the USDA's press release, "and by investing in specialty crop growers and producers across the country, we can help spark new markets and job creation, while expanding production of healthy, safe and affordable food."

The Merced Sun-Star reports that the bulk of awarded funding—nearly 34 percent—went to California. According to the California Department of Agriculture, the Golden State produces nearly half of the country's fruit, nuts, and vegetable. (To see award amounts for each state, go here. For descriptions of the 2011 programs by state, go here.)

While the grants are nowhere near the amounts given to commodity crop producers, they're a step in the right direction as the USDA faces scrutiny.

According to American Agriculturist, Merrigan didn't shy away from admitting discrepancies between the government's nutrition standards and its subsidies.

"With new dietary guidelines for Americans saying eat half a plate of fruits and vegetables," she said, referencing the My Plate design that debuted this year, "it is really important that this program is there to help our specialty crop industry out to advance the cause," she said.

Photo: gasrussell11/Creative Commons via Flickr

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