Alabama agriculture officials are hoping a new federally funded grant program will strengthen the middle of the state’s food supply chain, help Alabamians access more locally grown foods and reduce food waste.
The federal Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program was funded with $420 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, $6.4 million of which was dedicated to Alabama projects to support businesses in the middle of the food supply. Those are the entities that can take the products from farms and package and distribute them to end markets, including stores or schools.
“We see the RFSI program as a win-win, as it bridges the gap in the middle of the food supply chain,” Rick Pate, Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, told Alabama Daily News. “It will help farmers with direct consumer sales by providing funding for processing, storing, transporting and distributing their farm fresh products.”
The minimum grant amount is $100,000 and applications are due Jan. 15.
“This is one of those really unique opportunities where not only are we investing in communities, but we’re getting to bring the agriculture and the economic development pieces together,” said program coordinator Meredith Casey.
Casey said the middle of the supply chain could be anything from storage to aggregation, processing, transportation and distribution.
“So the exciting thing about this program is that it touches so many different parts of the middle of the supply chain,” she said. “We’re really just hoping that our farmers are looking at their needs, and that they will be responding with applications that are going to not only help their communities in terms of more producers and processors but also benefit their school systems and their grocery stores where they live.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 30% of food produced in this country is wasted, much of it at the retail and consumer levels. Not only is that a waste of food that could feed hungry people, it’s a waste of the resources and labor that went into producing it.
A recent Auburn University study said that households that had regular retail access to foods, especially fresh foods, wasted less.
Pate used as an example of a possible grant recipient a third-party entity that could take producers’ excess fruits or vegetables that might not have another market and package them fresh and ready to eat for local schools.
Producers sometimes have a hard time finding markets for their produce that might be blemished but is otherwise high quality.
“Farmers have ideas for their seconds, their culls, things that don’t make that Grade A grocery store standard,” Casey said. “And so we’re hoping to see some new product development come out of this program.”
Casey said the department expects some but not all grant applications to come from producers.
“Our local school districts, our child nutrition directors, even local food banks and food pantries have expressed interest,” she said. “And then we have a few processors across the state that also have some projects in mind as well. So we’re expecting a really diverse set of projects for our review panel to look through.”