Philadelphia is getting one of 17 urban agricultural service centers, USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack announced at Saul High School, the country’s largest agricultural high school.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced millions in new investments for urban agriculture Friday, including money that will make its way to Philadelphia farms, schools and organizations.
The announcement — made in the auditorium at W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough, the country’s largest agricultural high school — will have a ripple effect throughout the country, said Vilsack, who heralded what he called “a great day for Philadelphia.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack said, will start 17 new service centers to promote urban agriculture, and partner with community-based organizations around the country, including PASA Sustainable Agriculture, based locally in East Kensington.
Beneficiaries of the USDA money announced Friday include $1.5 million for PASA to start one of the 17 urban service centers, providing information for those looking to get into urban farming, or help for those already running small- or mid-sized farms; and $50,000 Farm to School grants for the Norris Square Community Alliance and the Caring People Alliance, both based in the city.
The Farm to School Grants, Vilsack said, mean “farmers now have a new market opportunity. Schools now have a new opportunity to have fresh fruits, vegetables or potentially protein that is produced locally.”
Politicians, community members and Philadelphia Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. underscored the significance of Vilsack making the announcement at Saul, a Philadelphia magnet school and one of three working farms in the district.
“Agriculture is a top industry in Pennsylvania, and so we’re laser focused for preparing all of our young people who are interested in it, who may not be interested just yet,” Watlington said. Opportunities abound, and “we certainly will do our due diligence to make sure that we prepare our students to be ready for those opportunities.”
Weavers Way Co-op recently received $200,000 from the USDA’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative to help create a 6,000-foot, community-owned grocery store on Chelten Avenue in Germantown, said Jon Roesser, Weavers Way’s general manager.
The flexible federal funding stream helped with early costs, including architecture fees for the site, a long-closed former Acme.
There are no big farms within 100 miles of City Hall, but plenty of bread bakers, coffee roasters, orchards, cheese makers and other small producers, Roesser said. Friday’s announcement can make a big difference for them.
“The new dawn for me is how the USDA can support local food systems all across the country,” said Roesser.
Farming is tough work; many farmers struggle to eke out a living.
Scratching out numbers on a whiteboard in front of the Saul stage, Vilsack said the Biden administration’s investment can help bridge the gap for small and mid-sized producers who now often use a phrase he scrawled in green marker: “Get big or get out.” That is — 89% of U.S. agricultural revenues are now produced by a tiny fraction of its farms.
“We’re sending a message that no matter what you grow, where you grow, no matter how small you might be, there’s a place and an opportunity for you at USDA,” Vilsack said.
Published July 21, 2023