Underserved rural communities often lack access to affordable, healthy foods, a problem exacerbated by supply-chain issues during the COVID pandemic.  

A new regional initiative aims to connect and strengthen locally grown food systems to enhance healthy food options, nutrition and local economies. Nebraska is establishing the Heartland Regional Food Business Center with $25 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s among the university’s largest ever awards.  

The center will serve Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa. It’s one of 12 food business centers the USDA established nationwide with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.  

Instead of physical locations, the centers will be online portals providing information, resources and connections for those involved in regional food production and distribution. Farmers will be able to connect with local schools about meal programs, distributors with community leaders and residents with local grocers. 

Vendor at a local farmers market
Photo courtesy of Russell Shaffer, Rural Prosperity Nebraska

Rural Prosperity Nebraska, a Husker hub connecting communities with university resources, leads the project in cooperation with 33 partners. 

Mary Emery, the hub’s executive director, said that by providing a forum for greater communication and collaboration locally, the center will help people rethink and strengthen local and regional food supply chains.  

As collaboration improves, Emery and other leaders will gain a greater understanding of how regional food systems operate and will work to better connect rural communities to fresh, locally produced foods. 

The center will also provide planning and financial assistance for people seeking to expand their operations to meet regional food and nutritional needs. 

In addition to better access to healthy foods, the center’s efforts will boost local agricultural economies and help create more vibrant rural communities. Food scarcity in urban settings is another piece of the puzzle. 

“We want to get the message out to producers who are producing fresh foods for local markets that there are resources out there for you, and we’re going to make it easier for you to find them,” Emery said. “To food consumers, we want to say we’re going to help you find more and better local, healthy foods.”

The center’s partners include universities, extension programs and regional nonprofits. Rural Prosperity Nebraska is based in Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.