Merrigan said the USDA has come a long way in understanding the importance of healthy food access and locally grown regional food systems.
And it's more than just nutrition, as regional food systems can make rural communities more vibrant and attracting young people back to working lands, she said.
"There's not a challenge before American agriculture more daunting than repopulating our farms and ranches," Merrigan said.
Department officials say the National Institute of Food and Agriculture's 2012 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative's Food Security program supports research that will keep American agriculture competitive while helping to end world hunger. The program's aim is to increase the availability and accessibility of domestic and international food.
Other grant recipients include Purdue University, which is developing new strategies to defend against ear rot diseases in corn, the University of Tennessee, which is looking to identify ways to improve milk quality in the Southeast and enhance the sustainability of the Southeast dairy industry and the University of California in Berkeley, which will work with tribal groups in the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California to build sustainable regional food systems.
Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ddlammers