At the U.S. Department of Agriculture we’re working hard to strengthen the economy across rural America – and in recent years, we have seen positive signs of growth.

At the same time, we know that areas of high poverty still exist, and many of these are in our small towns and rural communities. In fact, nine out of ten persistent poverty counties in our nation are in rural America.

That’s why USDA launched the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative.

Through StrikeForce, we provide intensive care for communities that suffer from high poverty. USDA identifies areas with over 20 percent poverty for the StrikeForce effort. We join together with communities in these areas that are working to build opportunity for their citizens. Our staff partner with local organizations and civic leaders, providing them with technical support and assistance to help them successfully apply for USDA programs.

Since 2010, we’ve piloted the StrikeForce initiative in six states – Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.  In these states, USDA has already partnered with more than 400 community based organizations. Now, we are adding ten more. These include the Dakotas, the Carolinas, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

We have seen positive results from our early efforts. For example, in Strike Force areas, applications for Farm Service Agency direct farm loans were up last year, even as the number of applications nationwide was down slightly.

USDA investment in rural community facilities projects doubled. These investments provide a wide range of assistance for small towns – everything from helping improve a rural medical center to providing better access to clean drinking water for rural residents.

Our partnerships in StrikeForce areas also helped to increase the number of children receiving healthy meals under USDA’s Summer Food Service Program by more than 800,000.

At USDA, we’re dedicated to helping all communities address the challenge of persistent poverty. There’s much yet to be done, but the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity is an important step forward.

We have created a web page with further information on this effort – available at www.usda.gov/StrikeForce. I would encourage folks to visit, learn more about USDA’s work, and find out how we’re increasing partnership to alleviate poverty across rural America.