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USDA Expanding Program To Fight Rural Poverty

By MEG KINNARD

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) â¿¿ A federal program intended to reduce poverty and improve life in rural areas through better access to federal funding is expanding to six states, officials said Tuesday.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack traveled to South Carolina to announce the expansion of the so-called StrikeForce initiative, which already operates in 10 states. The program will now also be available in the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Alabama and Virginia.

The goal of StrikeForce is to help farmers, food producers and other businesses get access to money for projects such as new wells, greenhouses, community gardens, kitchen space, and summer meals for low-income school children. The money is often hard to access due to complicated grant applications, requirements for matching funds, and limited staffing.

The USDA uses U.S. Census data to find areas with poverty rates higher than 20 percent. The agency then works with local officials and community-based organizations to publicize the program and reach out to potential applicants. One of the areas Vilsack visited Tuesday was Bamberg County, home to South Carolina's fourth-highest unemployment, at 15.3 percent.

"Oftentimes, people fail to realize that 90 percent of persistent poor counties are located in rural areas," Vilsack said during a later stop at the Statehouse in Columbia.

The money has already helped Larry Harris, who has operated a small farm in South Carolina's Sumter County for about 15 years. Harris says he used to farm row crops such as soybeans and corn but, several years ago, learned of a USDA-funded program that could help him build a well to irrigate more profitable specialty vegetable crops. Harris is bound by a contract with USDA to use the well for irrigation for three years. After that, he can use the well as he sees fit.

Other small farmers from neighboring counties have come to see his setup and get ideas for their own projects, Harris said.

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