SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that Puerto Rico will receive $25 million more a year to pay for public school meals, as well as federal resources to help strengthen rural communities amid a financial crisis.
Vilsack is the latest top federal official to visit the U.S. territory in recent months as it struggles to emerge from a decade-long economic slump and faces $70 billion of public debt.
"It will certainly take some of the pressure off," Vilsack said of the 17 percent increase in school meal reimbursement rates.
He said his agency also selected Puerto Rico's eastern region as a federal Promise Zone, which in part gives local communities an advantage when seeking grants or other federal assistance. Vilsack said AmeriCorps volunteers will visit the eastern region where an abandoned U.S. naval station is located in an effort to revitalize communities in three municipalities. Local government officials have struggled to attract investors to the former Roosevelt Roads station.
Vilsack said the aim is to create jobs through tourism and increased development, as well as attract film and TV crews to the island, build affordable housing and establish a marina and a commercial hydroponic farm, among other things.
He noted that Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of the food it consumes.
"I think there is incredible opportunity for Puerto Rico to reverse (this)," he said, adding that crops should be grown not just for food and fiber, but for fuel and energy sources.
Puerto Rico was the site of a federal pilot program that allowed people enrolled in a nutrition assistance program to buy food at participating farmers market with their cards. Vilsack said the program has been made permanent in part to support local farmers.
Puerto Rico Agriculture Secretary Myrna Comas praised those efforts and said they would help boost steps taken by her own agency, such as increasing the number of local products used in school meals from 25 percent to 60 percent.
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