La. to be part of national initiative to improve rural poverty conditions

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday that Louisiana and three other states are joining the federal StrikeForce Initiative to invest in improving areas with significant rural poverty levels.

The StrikeForce Initiative includes efforts to assist low-income people in rural areas with programs such as those helping farmers get microloans, increasing education access and even smaller things like allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, to be used for local fruits and vegetables and farmers markets.

Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia were also added on Friday. StrikeForce will operate in 20 states with the new additions.

Louisiana’s inclusion will focus on 11 parishes in northeastern Louisiana. They are Caldwell, Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Franklin, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Richland, Tensas and West Carroll parishes.

Vilsack said more than half of the “persistently poor” counties nationally are in rural America. “There is a significant rural component to the poverty that America is dealing with,” he said.

Rural workers make less money and often feel “disconnected and left out” from federal programs and assistance, he said.

This effort is about getting on the ground and working with an “intense focus” in targeted areas with partnerships with colleges, chambers of commerce and much more.

“It isn’t enough to say, ‘I’m from the federal government, and I’m here to help,’ ” Vilsack said.

The program identifies census tracts with more than 20 percent poverty to identify subcounty pockets of poverty. Participants in StrikeForce include The Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development, the Farm Service Agency, the Food and Nutrition Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Advocacy and Outreach.

Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain said the initiative could significantly help northeastern Louisiana, which is “traditionally one of the poorest regions in the United States.”

Strain said he is particularly pleased to see more rural and minority farmers receive support in acquiring microloans to fund their initial crop productions. “It’s difficult for anybody to get a loan in this environment,” he said.

“You facilitate people to help them lift themselves out of poverty,” Strain said. “The only way out of poverty is to have access to capital and opportunity.”

Last year, the Farm Service Agency provided nearly $9.3 million to fund microloans in StrikeForce areas. About 84 percent of the loans were provided to socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers.

Also in 2013, the number of individuals applying for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services programs in StrikeForce areas increased by 82 percent over the previous year.