Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited southeast Georgia this week and held a rural community forum to listen to comments and concerns of local residents.

Vilsack also shared information with local residents about the work USDA is doing to revitalize and rebuild rural America through its ongoing programs and projects.

"Rural America is the lifeblood of our country and it is imperative that we do what it takes to keep our rural communities strong," said Vilsack. "President Obama and I are committed to investing in and revitalizing these communities, in part because they play an important role in our national and international food delivery system."

Vilsack discussed how the USDA provides leadership on food, agriculture and natural resources and touches the life of every American. Under his leadership, the USDA is working to promote a sustainable, safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply, ensure that America leads the global fight against climate change, and revitalize rural communities by expanding economic opportunities.

Vilsack also noted several American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) efforts that are under way across the country through the work of USDA. Some of these efforts to make positive change in the lives of Georgians include:

• The Farm Service Agency is working to distribute the $173 million allocated in the Recovery Act for its Direct Operating Farm Loan Program. So far, 75 Georgia farmers have been awarded a total of $8 million in loans. Of these 45 have been to beginning farmers and 19 have been awarded to socially disadvantaged farmers.

• On April 1, 2009, benefits increased in Colorado and nationwide for households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Most four-person households will receive an $80 increase in their monthly SNAP benefit as a result of ARRA. Eligibility limits on jobless adults will be suspended in most areas. Additional SNAP benefits in Georgia will total nearly $730 million. The state of Georgia also received an additional $5.1 million to help administer the program.

• The Georgia Department of Education received more than $4.4 million for the purpose of providing equipment grants to schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. The state is currently evaluating the competitive grant proposals and expects to award the funds by June 12, 2009.

• The Georgia Department of Human Resources received additional funds to support The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Additional foods valued at more than $3.2 million have been ordered by the state for issuance to Food Banks and Community Action Agencies beginning this month through September 2009. Additional administrative funds were provided to Georgia in the amount of $814,265, which will be used to pay for storage and delivery costs for the food at the state and local agency levels.

• Rural Development has allocated funds to provide nearly $25.7 million in direct loans and guarantee another $227 million worth of loans in the state of Georgia. Already, USDA has helped guarantee 1,281 loans in the state worth nearly $151 million and directly issued another 48 loans worth nearly $5.3 million. These loans can help rural residents build, repair, renovate, or relocate a home, or to purchase and prepare sites, including providing water and sewage facilities.

• The Forest Service in Georgia received more than $7 million for three projects to reduce hazardous fuels in nearly 30 counties across the state and to restore habitat in the Dixon Memorial Forest. They will also benefit from a grant of nearly $9 million for five regional states to restore the habitat of the Longleaf Pine.

• The Natural Resource Conservation Service has awarded $6,315,000 for six watershed rehabilitation projects located in northeastern Georgia. Five will provide much-needed upgrades to dams, together protecting 232 homes and businesses from flooding. During floods, they will reduce threats of loss of life, reduce the need for emergency personnel, and assure less disruption of community services. One of the six projects will improve 20 miles of streams and create open spaces. Together, these projects each year will provide more than $1.7 million in flood protection benefits.