An inside look at efforts at USDA to build a resilient food system

By Amy Mattias, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student

The halls of the USDA Whitten Building in Washington, D.C. were filled with chatter as our group of Sustainable Food Systems graduate students headed to hear from the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP), Jennifer Lester Moffitt, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Administrator, Bruce Summers, and AMS Associate Administrator, Melissa Bailey. USDA has eight mission areas overseen by Under Secretaries, one of which is Marketing and Regulatory Programs. As Under Secretary for this mission area, Moffitt works closely with Administrator Summers and Associate Administrator Bailey as she directs the work of AMS along with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). These two agencies are leaders in setting national and international standards, regulating genetic modification techniques, protecting the domestic health and welfare of plants and animals, and the marketing of all agricultural products produced domestically.

Under Secretary Moffitt began the conversation by sharing information about the supply chain assessment that has been the backbone to many of the new programs and strategic plan that USDA is embarking on. In February 2021, President Biden’s Executive Order 14017: America’s Supply Chains directed USDA to assess the current food and farming supply chain. After completing this directive, the USDA Agri-Food Supply Chain Assessment was published in 2022. This assessment has led AMS to adopt an overarching theme of “Building a Resilient Food System from Farm to Fork which they are achieving by addressing five priority areas: 1) increase competition, 2) create more, new & better markets, 3) deliver pandemic assistance, 4) build capacity & equity, and 5) expand access to nutritious foods. Under Secretary Moffitt said that to strengthen the core of the food system, the activities must be “bottom up and middle out.” For the more than 60 programs that touch on local and regional foods, this philosophy drives their programming and outreach.

Another overarching theme across the priority areas is a focus on human capital. The new Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) and the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program (MPPEP) offer critical workforce development funding. Furthermore, over $1 billion was allocated for pandemic assistance across the food supply chain which encompassed a revolutionary program to assist food and farm workers with direct cash payments. This program is aligned with other priorities as well, such as increasing equity and expanding access to nutritious food. Advancements in these areas can be seen across numerous AMS programs, including almost $1 billion in funding for states and tribes to uplift local and underserved growers and communities.

Addressing market consolidation within the meat industry has been another major focus area. Various programs have been announced and funding has been awarded to expand and strengthen small and mid-scale meat processing facilities. Students in the room had many questions about the recently announced programs, including the Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant Program (IAG). One student specifically asked about whether or not Native Hawaiians were eligible for this program. The USDA staff spoke about the ongoing discussion about this situation and the petition that was filed to recognize Hawaiian natives as Indigenous peoples. Native Hawaiians do not have a tribal government as defined by the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act of 1994 and therefore do not qualify for this program at this time. The program awards have not been announced as of the posting of this blog.

The organic market is also a focus of the MRP/AMS team and various programs have been launched to support farmers seeking to transition to organic certification, including an expansion of the existing organic certification cost share program and a new technical assistance and mentorship program implemented by collaborating organizations with cooperative agreements. During the discussion, a cohort member asked about the shortage of organic inspectors, especially as more farms, processors, and food handlers are interested in pursuing organic certifications. Administrator Summers shared about the recent program to directly address the need for growing the organic inspector workforce by way of mentorship programs and additional vocation training opportunities.

A historical investment in regional food systems was announced the week prior to our meeting on May 10th, with $400 million of funding awarded across 12 USDA Regional Food Business Centers and an additional $420 million for the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program. These centers will serve every state in the nation by providing technical assistance and capacity building across the regional food supply chain, from farmers and ranchers to food distributors and processors.

All the aforementioned programs contribute to the overarching goal of “Building a Resilient Food System from Farm to Fork,” but this cannot be done without a workforce to implement it. Under Secretary Moffitt closed our visit with a call of action for us to consider joining the staff at USDA. For many of us, this invitation to join USDA is coming at a perfect time when we all are desiring to be more deeply involved in food system transformation.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.