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Budget cuts may hurt urban food efforts, agriculture official says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2011 - Roger Beachy, former head of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, expressed concern Friday about the impact that federal budget cuts might have on research and other programs at the Department of Agriculture. Last year, Beachy was appointed the department's first director of National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

He was in St. Louis on Friday to tour a grocery co-op in the Old North community and talk about food deserts -- neighborhoods where residents lack access to full-service grocery stores. He said he hoped to take back to Washington ideas of how the department can work more closely with the University of Missouri agriculture extension program, food co-ops and other groups.

But the House efforts to make sharp cuts in agriculture and other federal programs were on his mind. He mentioned them in response to a question from the Beacon, noting that one proposal would trim $250 million from the institute's budget. The money includes spending for research ranging from sustainable agriculture to organic research to plant breeding.

"We do know the impact of what we can do in the Department of Agriculture," he said. "There may be less opportunity to help further the work of co-ops like this and others around the country. There certainly would be less (money for) doing the kind of research and extension work and funding extension research and development as a consequence of the budget restraints."

Regardless of the outcome, he said, "We hope to keep some of the research activities alive. But it will be very much up for debate in the next few months. We want people to know the work of the Agriculture Department. The more people know about what we do, the more the likelihood they can talk to their congressman about the importance of what USDA does so that we can make sure funding continues."

He acknowledged that some cuts might occur, saying, "these are trying economic times, and we have to make it work. But we don't want to do it at the expense of investing in our future. That's what research and education do. They invest in our future."

Extension Programs Help Urban Areas

The tour was arranged in part by by the University of Missouri Extension program, one of several groups that formed a partnership to help set up the food co-op. The other partners were the Missouri Foundation for Health, the Missouri Department of Agriculture and Lee Farms.

Kara Lubischer, community developer for the University of Missouri Extension program, hopes that Beachy's visit will help shine more light on the way agriculture extension programs have changed in recent years. In the past, she said, the assumption was the program involved only rural communities.

These days, she said, rural and urban interests need to a comprehensive strategy "to address food deserts by increasing the supply of food" through food from farmers and through urban community gardens "and making sure food is affordable and healthy."

One goal, she said is to help Washington "understand the role that agriculture is playing" in helping food co-ops develop and thrive.

Bud Reber, regional director of the extension program, pointed to the partnership between Lee Farms in Truxton, Mo., and the Old North Co-op, 2718 13th Street, as an example of how the extension program is connecting urban and rural communities. The co-op contracts with Rusty Lee, owner of Lee Farms, to supply much of the fresh food that is sold in the co-op.

David Baker, assistant dean in the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, says the public doesn't fully understand the role of agriculture in Missouri.

"Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state, with 108,000 farms," he said. "All are important, not only in rural communities but economic development in urban areas."

He cited extension services provided at the West End Community Center near Delmar and Union, where youngsters learn about careers.

"Some of them are now getting degrees at Rolla," the University of Missouri's engineering school, he said. "Had they not had that experience through the extension program, they might not have gone to Rolla."

Beachy also said he hoped to learn from his visit to the co-op. "We have to look at all the pieces that go into successful communities. We sometimes get so engaged with the big projects that we sometime lose sight of the smaller projects that also have to go along.

"Sometimes, I wonder if policymakers and representatives are aware of the small pieces, and I want to encourage them to be knowledgeable. I want to make sure that my colleagues in Washington working in a variety of areas of agriculture are aware of this new piece here in St. Louis as an example of what might work not only here but in other cities."

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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