USDA Spending $10 Million to Promote Farmers' Markets in Michelle Obama's 'Food Deserts'

By Susan Jones | June 6, 2011 | 10:00 AM EDT

Fruit waiting to be sold at a farmers' market in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

( - The U.S Agriculture Department is offering $10 million in grants -- twice as much as last year -- to promote farmer's markets, roadside stands and other healthy food outlets across the country.

The priority this year is to bring fresh food to people living in rural and urban "food deserts," a concept advanced by First Lady Michelle Obama. Food deserts are defined as areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly those composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the availability of the taxpayer-funded farmers' market grants last Friday, at the opening of the 2011 USDA Farmer's Market in Washington.

The Farmers' Market Promotion Program (FMPP) funds projects that "contribute to the economic and physical health of communities around the country," the USDA says. The goal is to “increase domestic consumption of agricultural commodities” by improving and expanding farmers markets, or creating new ones.

Merrigan singled out a small farmers' market in Cleveland, Mississippi, which is using an FMPP grant to develop a market on two donated acres.

"The project is also teaching students production skills and entrepreneurship, and providing community members with freezing, canning, and pickling techniques to preserve the harvest for year-round healthy eating," the USDA said. "Upgrades to market equipment and promotions supported by FMPP, along with increased production, have drawn in more vendors (up 57 percent), more customers (up 44 percent), and expanded the market season on both ends (spring and fall)."

Last year, Michelle Obama called on Congress to create a $400 million-a-year program to encourage the establishment of supermarkets in places she called “food deserts.” As previously reported, Mrs. Obama -- in a March 10, 2010 speech -- described food deserts as areas without a supermarket where "families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.”

She gave the speech one month after launching her "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity in the United States.

The Farmers Market Promotion Program was created during the George W. Bush administration, through a 2002 amendment to a 1976 law. But this year's focus on "food deserts" is new.

The USDA says a total of $14.5 million in grants was awarded for the Farmers Market Promotion Program between 2006 and 2009. Approximately $5 million was allocated for 81 grants in Fiscal Year 2010, while $10 million has been allocated for each of Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012.

The money is to be spent on the marketing and promotion of farmers markets; consumer education and outreach; equipment purchase; transportation and delivery; training farmers in business planning and record-keeping; or waste management and "green technologies."

The application process to obtain an FMPP grant "takes energy and organization," the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service says. In fact, the guidelines explaining how to apply for an FMPP grant total 43 pages.

The application deadline is July 1, and the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service expects to announce the grant recipients on or before Sept. 30.