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If the federal government had $100 million to spend, I would seek to create a revolving fund to support urban agriculture operations in low-income areas. This fund could go towards the start-up costs (facilities and equipment lease/purchase, investment capital, etc.) of organizations with innovative ways of creating jobs in urban areas that experience both extremely high unemployment as well as being considered “food deserts.” By pairing these two issues—access to jobs and access to quality nourishment—this program would seek to rebuild local economies through job creation and attracting commercial attention to neighborhoods long since forgotten. Urban agriculture, which includes rooftop cultivation, vertical farming, and closed-loop production models, not only creates jobs at the actual growing operations (some with over 100 full and part time jobs), but supports nearby grocery firms by supplying them with high quality produce.. The key issue involved—accessibility—is crucial to the population that this project is meant to serve—not only entrepreneurs, but low-income individuals that are out of work. Too many factories in urban areas have been forced to close, leaving employment gaps of several hundred or more within just a few blocks. As a result, many individuals have to travel great distances for mediocre employment, straining their budget and ability to maintain employment. Concurrently, insufficient access to nutritious food has damaged many neighborhoods near urban centers. This project would seek to revitalize these neighborhoods with job creation, starting the cycle of investment vital to community economic development.
With urban agriculture already established in cities across the nation, a national revolving fund in which principal has to be repaid with interest (though lower than a commercial loan) would help expand the success of future facilities by building on the achievement of early recipients. The deficit-neutral nature of this fund adds to its appeal as a fiscally sustainable off-budget program, to be administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a separate account from its general fund revenue. NIFA currently administers a competitive grant program for research and education-based programs. As with other NIFA programs, the revolving fund loans could be awarded to organizations or given to local governments as block funds, though all funds must be paid as the operations expand and gain profitability. As the principal with interest is paid back, those returns can be loaned out again. Criteria would be established to funnel loans to programs with proven methods of production and with private sector support or other non-federal matching funds.
In an age in which we as a country must balance budgets and our impact on the economy and environment, this program seeks to create federal support for sustainable production of healthy food in neighborhoods with little of it, and for areas plagued with abandonment and unemployment. Its focus is on the innovators of today without compromising the ability of leaders tomorrow to thrive. This is, by definition, a fiscally, socially, and environmentally sustainable venture.
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