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Editor's Note: Rick Foster is vice president of programs for food systems, rural development, and leadership development at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich.

Rick Foster
AM: What is your background?
I was raised on an Iowa farm and saw early in life the difficulties rural people and farmers face. I attended Iowa State University and received a bachelor's degree in agricultural education. I taught vocational agriculture in Iowa for five years, returned to Iowa State for my master's and doctoral degrees in agricultural education, and taught at the University of Nebraska for 10 years. I have been at the Kellogg Foundation for 13 years.

AM: Give us a brief overview of the Kellogg Foundation.

The Kellogg Foundation was established in 1930 by cereal industry pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, who believed the best thing he could do with his money was invest it in people. From this came our mission statement: "To help people help themselves through the practical application of knowledge and resources to improve their quality of life and that of future generations."

Agriculture and rural communities became an early focus of the Foundation. Today, the Food Systems and Rural Development programming area is one of four main areas the Foundation targets in its grants-in-aid. The other three areas are health, youth and education, and philanthropy and voluntarism.

We believe we cannot have a strong America without a strong rural America. Our food systems work creates a system in our country that is economically viable and environmentally and socially responsible for all farmers, be they small, midsize or large. We believe the best food system is a diverse one that looks at local economies, as well as global economies. We think a complementary relationship exists and not a competitive one.

AM: What is the Kellogg Foundation doing to help rural America?

The Kellogg Foundation is the largest private foundation funder of rural America - investing more than $31 million annually in rural development grants.

We are in the process of launching a new initiative, "Rural People, Rural Policy." Its initiative is to gain national attention for rural communities' potential and problems so Americans will understand the importance of policies that support healthy, thriving rural communities. From 2006-2011, selected organizations will strengthen their capabilities and hone policy development skills to enable their rural voices to be heard collectively through rural policy networks.

A lot of our work centers on creating economic opportunities through small business development and job creation by encouraging entrepreneurship in rural America. In March we awarded $12 million in Rural Entrepreneurship Development Systems grants to six collaborative efforts. The grants will enable these collaborations to promote economic development and jobs in their regions, showcase successful models of entrepreneurship activity to others, and stimulate state and national interest strengthening rural entrepreneurship policies and strategies.

AM: What have been some of the more rewarding and successful projects you have been involved with?

I think the role of any foundation is to catch the wave of innovation and expedite it. What we have seen in some unique projects across the country is the ability to mobilize coalitions of local farmers to address nutrition and health needs while creating marketing niches for their products.

An example is Food Alliance based in Portland, Oreg. The region's small and mid-size fruit and vegetable growers were experiencing increased foreign competition, and had seen their market share diminish.

Food Alliance created a marketing and communication campaign around high-quality foods grown in a manner that was more acceptable to consumers. Working with the region's small and mid-size farmers it put together a third-party certification system that guaranteed consumers that products carrying the Food Alliance label were grown on member-producers' farms in an environmentally friendly manner, using labor working under safe and fair conditions.

Today, a majority of the produce sold in grocery stores across the region carries the Food Alliance label. Estimates are that in three years the program provided $20 million of additional income to small and midsize farmers in Washington and Oregon. The program has support and participation from leaders in both organic and conventional agriculture, and from retail and wholesale food businesses.

This is an example of the kind of innovative and creative approaches we see developing - growing food in a quality way, using market-based practices that meet consumer needs while creating opportunities for future growth.

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