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Report highlights importance of USDA nutrition programs

During this holiday season, many of us will gather with family and friends to celebrate the excitement and joy that this special time of year brings. And at most of those gatherings, there will be an abundance of food to savor and enjoy.

But a recent report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a stark reminder that every year, and especially during the current economic downturn, millions of Americans face the daunting and shocking reality of not having sufficient financial resources to adequately feed themselves or their family.

The report also highlights the important role that USDA's food and nutrition programs play in providing assistance to some of America's most vulnerable people during these difficult economic times.

The report "Food Security in the United States 2009" was prepared and released by USDA's Economic Research Service. It indicates that 17.4 million households in America had difficulty providing enough food due to a lack of resources in 2009, which is about the same as in 2008.

In more than one-third of those households that reported difficulty in providing enough food, at least one member did not get enough to eat at some time during the year, and that normal eating patterns were disrupted due to limited resources.

Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas, and rates were substantially higher than the national average among households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by single parents, and African-American and Hispanic households.

According to USDA's survey, 57 percent of food-insecure households reported that they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal nutrition assistance programs within the past month. Those programs included the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program; the National School Lunch Program; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

USDA's federal nutrition assistance programs have seen dramatic participation growth, with major programs at or near record levels of participation. For example, between 2008 and 2009:

- The average monthly participation rate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program increased by about 5.3 million people, an increase of 18.7 percent.

- One million more low-income children received free or reduced price lunches on an average school day, a 5.4 percent increase.

- There were more than 400,000 more participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in an average month, an increase of 4.8 percent.

- Food donations through the Emergency Food Assistance Program increased by $100 million as a result of the Recovery Act, providing additional USDA food supplies to thousands of food pantries and other emergency feeding organizations across the country.

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including child nutrition programs, that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year.

Minnesota spring wheat and oats production data released

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spring wheat production in Minnesota totaled 85.3 million bushels this year, up 4 percent from 2009. Spring wheat yields in Minnesota averaged 55 bushels per acre, up two bushels from last year.

Spring wheat acres harvested for grain totaled 1.55 million acres, unchanged from the previous year.

Oat production in Minnesota was estimated at 11.4 million bushels in 2010, down 6 percent from last year. Oat yields in Minnesota averaged 69 bushels per acre, down two bushels from one year ago.

Oat acres harvested for grain totaled 165,000 acres, down 3 percent from 2009 and ties the record low harvested acreage for Minnesota, set in 1866.

Scholarships available for organic farming education

A new scholarship program is available for Minnesota crop and dairy farmers who are in the process of transitioning to organic production, or who have been recently certified organic.

The scholarships will defray up to 90 percent of the cost to enroll in Farm Business Management courses offered by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

The number of available scholarships is limited. Interested farmers can find out if they qualify by calling 651-201-6616.

The scholarships are offered in conjunction with the Tools for Transition project, a study about the economics of transitioning to organic production. Funding for the scholarships is being provided by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture Organic Research Initiative.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.