Puerto Rico’s agriculture has been steadily declining and imports total 85 percent of the food consumed on the island. Additionally, almost all of the $11 million per year that USDA purchases for use in Puerto Rico’s school meals are purchased from companies in the continental United States. What’s more, each year the island’s School Food Authority purchases about $80 million in food to be served in school. We saw these as opportunities for local farmers and decided to do something about it.
The Market Expansion Conference, held June 23-24 in San Juan, teamed seven U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies and other Commonwealth and federal partners to show over 250 farmers how to sell food to local schools, expand their businesses and increase their participation in USDA programs. Puerto Rico’s milk farmers, cattle ranchers, pineapple growers and many others eagerly listened to USDA experts explain grading and licensing, and provide information in the areas of funding and procurement.
USDA has many diverse constituencies and, as part of our cultural transformation, we are working to reach and serve those constituents in the most effective way possible. In this case it meant conducting the entire conference in Spanish. Juan Garcia, Acting Deputy Administrator for Farm Service Agency (FSA)’s Farm Programs, even delivered the keynote address in Spanish. Meanwhile, an interpreter helped me and other linguistically-challenged participants understand the discussions through headphones.
It was worth it. The two-day conference held the farmers’ attention, the media covered the event and the evaluations sheets gave us rave reviews. Our commitment didn’t end with the conference; we’ll continue to help local agriculture flourish and Puerto Rico’s children will benefit from locally-grown, nutritious foods.