- Associated Press - Friday, January 17, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Counties in Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia are joining a federal program designed to help persistently poor rural communities take advantage of government resources.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a conference call that the StrikeForce initiative has helped to support over 80,000 projects since it began in 2010. Those projects include home and business loans, natural resources conservation and food assistance.

Although the loans and assistance aren’t new, the initiative helps people take advantage of them in the communities where they are most needed. Vilsack said many Department of Agriculture programs are underutilized, so money that could be spent in rural communities ends up going back to Washington, D.C.

The StrikeForce initiative currently operates in 16 other states, where it has increased participation in USDA programs - dramatically in some cases.

According to the USDA, the use of food stamps at farmers markets more than doubled from $2 million to over $4 million in StrikeForce states between 2012 and 2013. The number of landowners applying for Natural Resources Conservation Service programs in StrikeForce areas increased by 82 percent over the same period.

Smaller increases were seen in direct farm loan applications, in building projects supported by the Housing and Community Facilities Program and in the number of children receiving free or reduced-price school breakfasts.

Vilsack said the initiative works by coordinating the efforts of the different USDA programs that focus on rural community assistance, food and nutrition, farming and natural resources conservation. These programs further coordinate with local services agencies and nonprofits to identify a community’s needs and areas where the USDA can help.

On Friday, Vilsack was travelling to Pineville, Ky., to announce the program’s expansion into 73 counties there. In Tennessee, the program will operate in 53 counties. In West Virginia it will be in 29 counties, and in Louisiana it will be in 11 parishes.

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