Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the US Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement with California during his Wednesday visit to the Yolo County Food Bank in Woodland.
The program was authorized through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. It will allow the California Department of Social Services to seek, purchase and distribute locally grown produce and processed food from underserved producers.
“Providing access to new markets for more producers and helping more Americans experiencing food insecurity is going to take new partnerships, new innovations, and new ways of thinking – and the best solutions can often be local,” Vilsack said during his visit. “This program provides tribes, states, and US territories the ability to work in new and creative ways with their local partners, establishing connections between their producers and underserved communities.”
He added that food purchased through the program will provide “consistent access to locally and regionally sourced food,” which he believes will help provide economic stability for farmers, producers and families while addressing health, nutrition and food insecurity in the region.
“I learned today that there are 58 counties in California and, unfortunately, we are in the county with the highest level of poverty of any county in the state of California,” Vilsack noted regarding Yolo County.
“We did a study recently that identified that over 89% of our farms do not generate the majority of income for the farm families that are farming it,” he said regarding the country. “That means those farm families had to have other income to be able to continue to do what they love to do. It’s important and necessary for us to expand significantly the opportunities for farmers and ranchers to be able to profit.”
Yolo County Board Chair Angel Barajas, who attended the event, acknowledged the statistic and stressed the importance of the program because of all the help it will provide county residents.
“Yolo County has a good reputation of working with farmers, farmworkers and county stakeholders to provide food security for those most in need,” he emphasized. “It’s extremely positive that he came to Yolo County to announce his new program because it signals to the farming community and the county that we’re doing something incredibly great and we’re ready to jumpstart his program making sure we have healthy local foods going to those that need it the most.”
Alfred Melbourne, founder, and director of Three Sisters Gardens – a native and indigenous-led nonprofit farm group based in West Sacramento – attended the event and asked Vilsack during a press conference how he intended to reach farmers like him who are not experienced with the process and paperwork involved in applying for grants or for help from programs like these.
“We need more resources,” Melbourne said after the press conference. “When we talk about technical assistance, the USDA and CDFA have many grants out there but it’s hard for someone like myself who doesn’t have the expertise or hasn’t had the privilege of being able to attend university or college just because we re having to work so hard in the communities.”
Melbourne – who is indigenous – explained that technical assistance to him would mean sitting down with small farm owners to help them understand the process and the paperwork involved in completing grants successfully.
“We need a better program by the CDFA and the USDA to come sit with us to make sure that we’re getting access to this funding,” he stressed. “We need more native, indigenous, and people-of-color-led organizations getting the support so that you have a representation of people who look like them and their own communities.”
He also noted that when programs like these come out, he has seen very little if any support flow into small farms like his.
“I’ve met with a lot of different folks and organizations, and I know they get paid a lot of money to come out and talk to us, but at the end of the day, I haven’t seen any of it,” I highlighted. “If we fail, it’s not because of us, it’s because the system failed us.”
Vilsack responded to Melbourne’s question regarding technical assistance, noting that as part of the American Rescue Plan, the Department of Agriculture received resources to hire “cooperators” – groups or organizations with connections to historically underserved producers and small-sized farming operations – to provide technical assistance
“Initially, we awarded $75 million to 20 different large-scale operators that are currently now making those connections and providing that technical assistance,” he emphasized.
Barajas also argued that the county should do everything it can to support its farmers of color.
“We do have indigenous and other individuals of color who want to start farming and need to secure land grant opportunities or the technical assistance that is needed,” he explained. “As a county, we have the ability to bridge those networks to provide him and others the opportunity of technical assistance and the opportunity of possible funding through the American Rescue Plan.”
Melbourne remains hopeful and is looking forward to seeing the program roll out in the coming months. However, he remains skeptical of the promises made until he begins seeing some of the help trickles down to farms like his.
“We need the support not just getting a picture taken and sound bites,” I argued. “We actually need full support A to Z.”