ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with the United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who visited Feeding Tampa Bay's warehouse and toured the facility.
The secretary talked about what the Biden Administration is doing regarding the supply chain issues and the rising cost of food across the country. He also discussed where federal dollars are now being invested to help those who are food insecure.
For two hours, Vilsack and Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried toured Feeding Tampa Bay's warehouse to learn more about how the organization helps put food on the table for over one million Floridians who are food insecure.
"There's a celebration of community here every single day. And we saw with the volunteers today, as they were packing those boxes," Vilsack said.
Vilsack also told Ryan what the administration is doing to help food banks feed the rising number of Americans in need of nutritious food.
"We've created an infrastructure fund. We call it the 'Region Resiliency Fund.' We put $100 million into it and basically said 'apply for it.' If you need storage, if you need warehousing, if you have a plan to get to remote and rural areas, we want to help fund that and we want to help finance that," he explained.
When it comes to the supply chain issues, Vilsack explained what his department is doing to get products to stores faster.
"We are establishing what are called 'Pop-up Ports.' Instead of products being on the docks, on containers because they can't be moved because there aren't enough truck drivers, we're creating the ability to move those containers inland, making it easier to locate the truck driver that then gets them into the store," he said.
The federal government focused on new ways to increase the number of truck drivers needed.
"We made the apprenticeships more easily obtainable. There's an apprenticeship program, in essence here at this food bank, where they've got a workforce development and we made it easier for people to qualify for the Department of Labor program," he added.
The Biden Administration is now investing $150 million in rural parts of the country so the secretary encouraged Florida farmers to apply for these grants.
"The application is going to be for as high as $25 million to facilitate a processing facility. There are also other smaller grants that have been provided for facilities that exist today that want to expand their market beyond just selling inside a state to other states," he explained.
Since only 50% of those who are eligible actually participate in the WIC Program for Women, Infants, and Children, Vilsack admits more work needs to be done to get the word out.
"So we are now investing resources in studying the community outreach that takes place for WIC, and figuring out ways in which we can encourage the WIC agencies to do a better job of connecting with folks so that, for example, if they come to a food bank like this one, they get information about WIC, they get encouragement to participate in WIC," he said.
For the first time in 45 years, the USDA increased the benefits for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to be more in line with the rising cost of food.
Vilsack believes with the federal programs and food banks like Feeding Tampa Bay, Floridians are in good hands with how our state is connecting to those in need.
"Florida's got about 10% of the SNAP benefit beneficiaries in the country today. They've got several hundred thousand kids who are on free and reduced lunch. They've got several hundred thousand folks who participate in WIC. They've got several hundred thousand kids are involved in summer feeding programs. So there is a demand and need here in the state. And these folks are stepping up," he said.