By Leah Douglas
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration announced on Wednesday more than $2.1 billion in funding to shore up weaknesses in the country’s food supply system exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Near-record food prices have challenged governments around the world, and the Biden administration’s handling of inflation is a major concern for voters ahead of midterm elections in November.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the new funding, designed to enhance competition in food processing and distribution, increase access to healthy food, and expand markets for farmers, during a speech at Georgetown University.
Worker illness and other disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays and log jams in the food supply chain, and Russia’s invasion has led to higher prices for agricultural inputs and food products, indications that the U.S. food economy needs to be made more robust, Vilsack told Reuters ahead of the speech.
“In order for us to be able to deal with future disruptions, whether future pandemics or something else, we need a more resilient system,” he said. “A more resilient system is a system that has options.”
The investments, drawn from the American Rescue Plan Act and other relief legislation, include $900 million for food processing workforce training and supply-chain infrastructure, $550 million for small food businesses and reducing food waste, $375 million for organic and urban agriculture projects, and $370 million to boost public access to healthy food.
USDA will use $400 million of the funds to establish regional food business centers that will provide technical assistance to small and midsize food and farm businesses, the agency said.
Vilsack told Reuters that USDA will work with Congress to secure longer-term funding for new and expanded programs via the upcoming farm bill and the next appropriations process.
Hearings for the 2023 farm bill are already under way and negotiations will likely begin in earnest next session, policy advocates have told Reuters. The farm bill is typically passed every five years.
USDA has previously pledged $775 million in technical assistance, loans and grants for independent meat and poultry processing plants.
(Reporting by Leah Douglas in WashingtonEditing by Matthew Lewis)