USDA expanding program to fight rural poverty
COLUMBIA, S.C. - A federal program intended to reduce poverty and improve life in rural areas through better access to federal funding is expanding to six states, officials said Tuesday. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack traveled to South Carolina to announce the expansion of the so-called StrikeForce initiative, which already operates in 10 states. The program will now also be available in the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Alabama and Virginia. The goal of StrikeForce is to help farmers, food producers and other businesses get access to money for projects such as new wells, greenhouses, community gardens, kitchen space, and summer meals for low-income school children. The money is often hard to access due to complicated grant applications, requirements for matching funds, and limited staffing. The USDA uses U.S. Census data to find areas with poverty rates higher than 20 percent. The agency then works with local officials and community-based organizations to publicize the program and reach out to potential applicants. One of the areas Vilsack visited Tuesday was Bamberg County, home to South Carolina's fourth-highest unemployment, at 15.3 percent.“Oftentimes, people fail to realize that 90 percent of persistent poor counties are located in rural areas,” Vilsack said during a later stop at the Statehouse in Columbia. The money has already helped Larry Harris, who has operated a small farm in South Carolina's Sumter County for about 15 years. Harris says he used to farm row crops such as soybeans and corn but, several years ago, learned of a USDA-funded program that could help him build a well to irrigate more profitable specialty vegetable crops. Harris is bound by a contract with USDA to use the well for irrigation for three years. After that, he can use the well as he sees fit. Other small farmers from neighboring counties have come to see his setup and get ideas for their own projects, Harris said. “On an acre of land, through these programs you could make more growing vegetables than you could doing row crops,” he said. In addition to increasing profits for farmers, specialty vegetable gardens of the type Harris operates could help reduce obesity rates in poor counties by increasing residents' access to better-quality healthy foods, Vilsack said. In Sumter County, 74 percent of adults are considered overweight or obese, compared to South Carolina's overall rate of 67.4 percent. “The key to nutrition is access to foods that are healthy and nutritionally dense,” Vilsack said. If farmers grow more of their own fruits and vegetables, he said, “people don't have to rely on a convenience store that has a very limited set of offerings.” South Carolina has been considering asking the USDA for a waiver to allow the state to restrict food stamp recipients to certain purchases with the aim of encouraging healthier eating. Vilsack said his agency was also looking at ways to encourage people to eat better, such as discounting some purchases for food stamp recipients but subsidizing the transactions so that retailers get paid full price.