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Water, Opioids Focus of USDA Visit

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A Trump administration official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture came to Little Rock Wednesday to announce both new water infrastructure projects and the latest efforts to curb the growing opioid epidemic.

Anne Hazlett, who serves as Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gave the keynote speech at a rural development conference in Little Rock Wednesday.

The water projects are part of a $256 million investment in water infrastructure by the USDA. The two Arkansas projects are part of 81 projects nationwide designed to boost economic development in rural communities through enhanced infrastructure.

Hazlett told KUAR News that the projects, a new water treatment facility in Russellville and a new well in Ravenden, have the potential to attract business aside from agriculture.

“Often times there are other… economic opportunities in these communities that need that water too, manufacturing for example,” Hazlett said. “Obviously, for the state’s agriculture, but as well as a number of the other sectors that are here, and water can be a big contribution to that, whether it’s food processing or advanced manufacturing.”

But Hazlett also addressed another issue that has affected rural communities: the rising death toll due to opioids. Hazlett noted USDA’s efforts in rural investment to combat the crisis.

“I think the grant opportunities that we have match a lot of the needs that I’ve heard today, and so [I’m] looking forward to our staff being more closely connected to some of the partners that we’ve met,” Hazlett said.

USDA currently offers three types of grants for opioid addiction and prevention services. The Rural Health and Safety Education Competitive Grants Program (RHSE), the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, and Community Facilities Program Grants represent more than $25 million available for different community needs.

“The RHSE grant… that’s really about education, and so that would be best for a community that’s really looking to deploy some prevention messaging,” Hazlett said. “The Telemedicine grant and the Community Facilities grant, that might be more for a community that’s looking to bring treatment services that are needed.”

Hazlett went on to describe the Community Facilities Program Grants, citing its versatility in addressing opioid addiction. Hazlett said community leaders, schools, and research institutions can all apply for the grants, based on the specific needs of the community.

“We believe it’s a very flexible program, so it could be used for a mobile treatment clinic, for example,” Hazlett said. “It could be used for an upgrade, maybe to a library, if they want to put a room… that would allow for people to come in and have telemedicine delivery into that room.”

The grants offered by USDA mainly focus on prevention and education services, rather than “harm reduction” programs like needle exchanges and safe injection sites. Hazlett said those needs are better met on the local level.

“I think a lot of the harm reduction conversation that you see, again, happens at the local level because a community needs to decide what’s best for them to address that issue,” Hazlett said. “Our grants do have some restrictions, and they may or may not be able to be a part of what might be decided at the local level.”

Also in the USDA’s wheelhouse is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. A version of the omnibus “Farm Bill” that would have imposed new requirements on SNAP recipients failed to pass the U.S. House, May 18. Hazlett said she anticipates a future version of the bill to draw enough bipartisan support to pass.

“The Farm Bill is an important piece of legislation for rural America, for agriculture in rural communities, and we’re excited to see that Congress recognizes its importance and is moving forward with its reauthorization, and we trust that they will complete their work in a timely manner.”

Congress continues to debate over the final passage of the Farm Bill, with the Senate currently drafting their own version of the bill’s reauthorization.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
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