( Courtesy of New Jersey Department of Agriculture )

Federal and state government programs keep encouraging the local agricultural economy, especially since COVID-19 pandemic shut-downs disrupted the market.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s local food directories help consumers locate farmers markets, on-farm markets, Community Supported Agriculture and food hubs.

Growers using a pick-up produce box, a Community Supported Agriculture model or an on-farm store have seen “extreme” increased demand, LauraKate McAllister, executive director of the South Carolina Specialty Crop Growers Association, said in May.

“Consumer demand for local ag products is extremely high right now,” said McAllister, also a marketing specialist for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

“Many people do not want to go to a grocery store and are looking for ways to support their local community.”

The number of farmers markets nationwide has been increasing steadily since at least 1994, to 8,771 markets in 2019, a modest 0.6% increase from the previous year, but huge compared to the 1,755 markets in 1994, according to the USDA’s marketing service division.

In December, the USDA announced $23.5 million in grant awards, through the Farmers Market Promotion Program and Local Food Promotion Program, which requires recipients to match 25% of their awards.

The farmers market program funded 49 projects, and the local food program funded 42 projects.

North Olympic Development Council received $39,535 from the local food program for a total of $49,419 after the match, to develop regional wholesale markets for farmers on the Olympica Peninsula of Washington.

The project’s mission is to increase wholesale purchases of local produce and value-added foods from Clallam and Jefferson counties by addressing the barriers to local purchasing for restaurants, grocers, institutions and community-based organizations in the region. It’s also to tackle the roadblocks that prevent area producers from accessing wholesale markets.

With restaurants closed during the pandemic, council members are focusing more on retailers, food banks, feeding programs, hospitals, retirement communities and nursing homes, said Karen Affeld, executive director.

They’re also looking at schools that offer meals or food backpacks during the crisis.

“It’s less than ideal in some ways, but in other ways, the supply chain and distribution disruptions that retailers, restaurants and institutions in our region have experienced have opened doors for discussion,” Affeld said.

The USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program sent out its invoice for the second round, adding 3.1 million food boxes for a total of 38.1 million boxes through August. The program partners with local, as well as regional and national, distributors to use fresh produce and other food produced by American farmers of all sizes.

In 2020, the Local Foods, Local Places program — sponsored by the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency — is working with 16 partner communities to help cities and towns nationwide protect the environment and human health by reinvesting in existing neighborhoods as they develop local food systems.

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