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AURI Partners with Minnesota Department of Agriculture on Supply Chain Resiliency

In the face of ever-evolving challenges like economic uncertainties, global pandemics, and climate change, the resilience of a region’s food system is paramount. Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure (RFSI) program, an initiative aimed at fortifying the country’s supply chain.

Funding for the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program is made possible by a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Agricultural Marketing Service and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The MDA, in turn, is partnering with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) to execute technical assistance components of the RFSI program.

The MDA is administering grants to fund projects that strengthen the “middle” of the supply chain in Minnesota. Grant applications will be reviewed this summer and awarded in the fall of 2024.

The ”middle” of the supply chain is a broad term. Michael Zastoupil, a food systems planner at the MDA, says the focus for these grants is any project that exists between the time a food is produced and the time it is sold at the final retail destination. The program is open to dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables, dry beans, and aquaculture operations. Numerous projects have been enacted recently that deal specifically with meat and poultry producers, and as a result, projects in those industries are not eligible for RFSI funding. The grant application period closed on April 3rd. Grant awards will be between $100,000 and $3 million. The projects require a 50 percent match from the applicant. Historically, underserved producers and socially disadvantaged businesses can qualify for a reduced 25 percent match. Zastoupil said typical eligible projects include things like a new processing facility or warehouse, additional storage capacity, transportation, a facility upgrade, new equipment and IT systems, and improvements to operations. Projects that enhance worker safety, food safety regulations, and new employee training are also eligible.

Eligible recipients are agricultural producers and groups of producers, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, local government entities, tribal government entities, and such institutions as schools, universities, and hospitals.

Special consideration in the review process will be given to projects from cooperatives or worker-owned enterprises and those that demonstrate family support, job quality, and improve worker safety. Priority will also be given to projects that add options and choices for consumers, especially value-added products.

The benefits of the RFSI program extend far beyond the immediate recipients of its support, reverberating throughout Minnesota’s agricultural landscape and beyond. By investing in infrastructure improvements and capacity-building initiatives, the program enhances local farmers’ and food businesses’ competitiveness, enabling them to thrive in a rapidly changing market environment. Moreover, by strengthening the resilience of the food supply chain, the program helps ensure the availability of safe, nutritious, and locally sourced food for consumers across the state.

Furthermore, the RFSI program contributes to broader economic development and community resilience initiatives, generating job opportunities, stimulating economic growth, and fostering vibrant rural communities. By supporting small and mid-sized farmers, promoting value-added processing activities, and expanding market access for local products, the program enhances the economic viability of rural areas and reduces dependency on external food sources. This, in turn, enhances the resilience of local economies and strengthens community cohesion and self-reliance.

The RFSI program embodies a proactive approach to enhancing the resilience of Minnesota’s food system infrastructure. It operates on multiple fronts, encompassing financial assistance, technical expertise, and collaborative partnerships. The program’s primary objective is to address the critical gaps and vulnerabilities within the state’s food system infrastructure to help it withstand and recover from various disruptions.

Jason Robinson, the business development director of food at AURI, says the program is designed to address some of the supply chain bottlenecks that surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic. With this grant funding, founders and entrepreneurs can create not just a product “but a business that can be financially sustainable and one that helps the Minnesota economy realize the benefits of a strong food and beverage manufacturing sector.”

“To build resiliency into the supply chain means there is enough infrastructure in place to overcome disruption,” Robinson says. “It is also critical to ensure the food supply chain remains strong not just for large companies, but also for the smaller scale companies that often bring much-needed innovation into the market.”

Central to the success of the RFSI program is its comprehensive process, which began with meticulous assessment and planning. The MDA collaborated closely with stakeholders, including farmers, producers, processors, distributors, and community organizations, to identify critical challenges and opportunities within the food system. Through extensive research and consultation, the program identified priority areas for intervention, considering factors such as geographic disparities, market demands, and environmental sustainability.

Kaylee Thornley is the MDA’s Grant Administrator for the RFSI program. She says many projects that receive grant funding will add value beyond their initial footprint. “A shorter supply chain is the more resilient one than having to ship it across the country,” Thornley says.

AURI serves two main functions with the RFSI program. First, the organization acts in an advisory role during the grant application period and provides valuable assistance and grant-writing coaching to applicants to improve their chances of being selected.

Second, AURI’s researchers and business advisers provide planning and guidance support to the projects selected on an ongoing basis. AURI is available to assist with research and development for technical considerations, feasibility assessments, food product development services, and more to ensure selected businesses can capitalize fully on the grant money.

The MDA could award nearly $9.6 million in grants through the program. The impact of the RFSI program will hopefully reverberate throughout Minnesota’s value-added food supply chain for years to come. This collaborative approach not only enhances the effectiveness of individual interventions but also cultivates a resilient and interconnected food ecosystem that can adapt and respond collectively to challenges. The program addresses critical gaps and vulnerabilities within the food system infrastructure, empowering farmers, producers, and communities to thrive in the face of evolving challenges.

“Hopefully, the result of this program is we have more processing facilities, distribution centers, and cold storage options throughout Minnesota at all points of intersection along the supply chain. So, if one facility closes down, there are additional options,” says Zastoupil. “By investing in the middle of the supply chain, we want to create more choices for producers and consumers.”

*The contents of this article are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA or the MDA.