Puerto Rico Eastern Region Designated New Promise Zone
SAN JUAN — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced several measures to strengthen rural opportunity in Puerto Rico, including that the Eastern Region of Puerto Rico has been selected as a federal Promise Zone. Vilsack made the announcement at the conclusion of his three-day trip to the island.
Through the Promise Zone initiative, the USDA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and 10 other federal agencies provide assistance to create jobs, leverage private investment, increase economic activity, expand educational opportunities, increase access to housing and improve public safety.
“Rural areas like Eastern Puerto Rico face unique challenges, and we are committed to matching those challenges with creative solutions to help strengthen communities,” Vilsack said in the published announcement. “The Promise Zones initiative has produced proven results by encouraging collaboration between the federal government, community organizations, the private sector and state and local governments. Through these partnerships, we are supporting jobs and economic opportunities that enable rural areas to thrive.”
According to the USDA, the Eastern Puerto Rico Promise Zone (EPRPZ) is expected to create jobs by boosting tourism and development, attracting film and TV production to Puerto Rico, establish an environmentally and technologically advanced ship recycling facility as well as constructing marinas, and establishing a logistics and distribution hub for surrounding islands; improve educational opportunities; reduce violent crimes by refurbishing the prison facilities and improving prisoner re-entry programs; promote health by developing a food hub and a commercial scale hydroponic farm with teaching kitchens and a food business incubator; and construct safe and affordable housing.
Vilsack also announced Thursday two nutrition-related measures the USDA will take in Puerto Rico. At the request of the commonwealth, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has approved a 17 percent increase in school meal reimbursement rates for Puerto Rico. The rate adjustment will take effect beginning July 1 for school year 2016-17 and will result in approximately $25 million annually in additional federal outlays.
“This increase is based on data indicating that the cost of producing school lunches, breakfasts, and snacks are higher than those in the continental US, as well as other factors impacting Puerto Rico’s school meals program. Approval of the increase can help ensure the continuing stability of school nutrition programs for Puerto Rico’s children during a time when the Commonwealth is experiencing financial challenges in other government areas that prevent them from providing additional state funds to the school meals programs,” an agency release reads.
Additionally, the USDA is making permanent a program called the Family Market pilot program, which promotes local agriculture economy and the consumption of locally grown fresh food by allowing Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) participants to use their electronic benefits transfer cards to purchase food at participating farmers markets. NAP participants redeem a set portion of their benefits for local agriculture products at the 44 NAP Family Markets. The participating farmers use battery-operated mobile point of sale devices to process the EBT transactions.
While in Puerto Rico, Vilsack convened a financial roundtable with local investors, financial leaders, economists and entrepreneurs to stimulate a conversation surrounding economic opportunities in rural Puerto Rico and how to leverage federal and private resources. During this administration, USDA invested nearly $2.5 billion to support affordable housing, create jobs and promote economic opportunity for those who live, work and raise their families in rural Puerto Rico as well as $209 million in infrastructure development, including broadband and telecommunications, water and wastewater, and construction of community facilities like fire stations and libraries.
Vilsack also met with members of the Puerto Rican agricultural production sector, including farmers, ranchers, livestock producers and specialty crop producers, as well as with Puerto Rico Agriculture Secretary Dr. Myrna Comas and Pablo Jiménez, president of the College of Agronomist for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico has some 637,000 acres of agriculture land, with a total of about 13,000 farmers. During the last few years, agriculture has become one of the most effective economic development industries in the commonwealth. Great challenges exist in the sector, including high energy costs, vulnerability to climate change, and market development. The meeting served as an opportunity to discuss partnerships, particularly in conservation and marketing, to help Puerto Rican producers seize on the productivity of their natural resources as well as adaptation and mitigation of climate change in the Caribbean.
In April 2015, the USDA announced that Puerto Rico would join the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative. More than $331 million in Puerto Rico in 2015 was invested to create jobs, build homes, feed kids, assist farmers and conserve natural resources.