The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given $2.5 million to the University of Kentucky to create a national center to improve nutrition for poor children in rural areas.
UK faculty and staff will run the USDA Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center, using the funding to administer and evaluate programs that reduce childhood food insecurity around the country.
Currently, about 85 percent of all persistently poor counties in the United States are in rural areas. Many of these areas also are known as "food deserts," where it's hard to find fresh, nutritious and affordable food.
"One out of four kids in rural America are food-insecure," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a phone interview Wednesday. "The purpose of this center is to establish best practices, to establish strategies that will work to address these unique challenges and create greater awareness on the part of policy makers."
UK applied through a competitive grant process to house the center, and Vilsack said a combination of current factors made Kentucky an appropriate place to house the center.
Vilsack cited Kentucky's rural poverty, the work of Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers on the SOAR project in Eastern Kentucky, and President Barack Obama's creation of a "Promise Zone" in Eastern Kentucky to receive integrated federal efforts to create jobs and increase economic security.
"The combination of all that makes Kentucky a great place to do this, and we're excited about establishing this center," Vilsack said.
Grants could go to as many as 30 rural areas with high poverty rates in up to 15 states. Vilsack said the ideas could range from delivering healthy food to people's homes to helping con venience stores sell more fruits and vegetables.
"We're creating an awareness of the problem and challenging people to figure it out," Vilsack said.
Nancy Cox, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, where the center will be housed, said UK's nutrition experts already have a long track record in rural areas. After awarding the grants, they will travel to different states to evaluate how well they are working.
"Educating parents and families on nutrition ... that's something that's very much needed, and it's something we do a lot," she said.
While Vilsack was in Kentucky on Thursday, he also announced that the state would receive one of 10 grants for pilot projects to target unemployment among the 20 percent of USDA nutrition benefits recipients who could work.
Vilsack said Kentucky would get almost $20 million as part of a two-year project that will focus on low-skilled, long-term unemployed people.
"You've got people who would love to be able to work but aren't for a variety of reasons," he said.
The program will be administered by the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services.