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Sustainable Food Loses Its Biggest Champion in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration is losing its most powerful supporter of local and organic foods. Kathleen Merrigan, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced last week that she would be leaving her post as USDA’s deputy secretary. Sustainable agriculture groups responded with dismay and disappointment to what the Columbus Dispatch described as her “abrupt” departure. The food industry publication The Packer speculated that this could spell “the end of local food at USDA.” Read more

Small Farm Financial Services Can Grow Regional Economies

Warren Taylor is a 60-year-old, Ohio-born entrepreneur who used to work at Safeway’s Dairy Division Headquarters when the grocer was the world’s largest milk bottling company. In 2007, he and his wife Victoria decided to mortgage family-owned rural land to start a business to process and distribute products sourced from cows that graze the southeastern Ohio countryside. The plan was to capitalize on consumer demand for products raised through environmentally sustainable agricultural methods and bring jobs to one of Ohio’s poorest counties.

Five years later, Snowville Creamery has more than 30 employees and a million-dollar payroll. Its 2012 projection is for $5 million in sales to regional grocery stores and an ice cream company. In recent months, Snowville began turning a profit. In recent days, five more employees were hired.

Today, Warren Taylor plans to drive to the state capital. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan is scheduled to keynote a Columbus forum entitled, “Ohio Grown: Local Food Creating Local Opportunities.” Taylor intends to advocate for the idea that dairy processors like Snowville can be the foundation for community-based agricultural economies nationwide. Read more

Know Your Bites: Does the USDA’s Local Farms Program Have a Chance?

Today, most of us see “local” as shorthand for fresh, delicious food that comes with a story attached—and that serves an alternative to consolidated, anonymous, commodity-based farming. But that hasn’t always been how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sees it.

USDA is known for creating, subsidizing, and promoting industrial agriculture. So the agency’s effort to dip its toes into the local food movement in 2009 with its Know Your Farmer Know Your Food program (KYF2) raised eyebrows and questions. Could USDA really help create a thriving bottom-up food system? Or would it spread the term local, and the ethos behind it, so thin as to make it meaningless? Read more

Exclusive Interview with Kathleen Merrigan: Farm to School Movement Comes of Age

It’s a big day for the farm to school movement. At the 2011 School Nutrition Association national convention in Nashville today, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced a comprehensive, groundbreaking report on the current state of farm to school efforts around the country. Download the full report here.

The data in the report was complied by the USDA Farm to School Team (comprised of both Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) staff), which made visits to 15 school districts (over what time frame) in a wide range of states. Merrigan spoke with Civil Eats earlier today about the findings and how it might shape the farm to school landscape of the future. Read more

Republican Senators Take Aim At Small Farmers, Urban Consumers, and Locavores

In late April, a trio of Republican senators––John McCain (AZ), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and Pat Roberts (KS)––wrote an angry letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, debunking a recent USDA program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” This initiative distributes grant money and loans with the goal of strengthening local food chains and linking consumers with farmers.

The Senators accuse USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan of diverting urgently needed funds from rural communities in favor of: 1) “specialty crops” (the government’s term for fruits, nuts, and vegetables, of which the USDA recommends each of us eat at least five servings a day); and 2) small growers and organic farmers (who the Senators stereotype as hobby producers “whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”) Read more

80+ Groups Urge FDA, USDA to Change U.S. Position on Food Labeling

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, and more than 80 farmers, public health, environmental, and organic food organizations today sent a letter to Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Food at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and to Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), expressing serious concerns that a proposed U.S. position on food labeling would create major problems for American producers who want to label their products as free of genetically modified (GM)/genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. A copy of the letter can be found online [PDF]. Read more

Another Assault on the SOLE Food Movement

Causing no end of difficulties in our national discourse is the steadfast belief held by both the right and the left that everything is either right or left: bad or good, strong or weak, despotic or patriotic.  You’re either with us or you’re against us.  President Obama addressed this very effectively before both House Republicans and Senate Democrats in recent days.  It is media driven to a large extent because the media need controversy to sell papers, or bytes or views or whatever it is they’re selling these days.

The most common form this takes is the old build’em-up-then-tear’em-down routine.  Perhaps the only thing many Americans enjoy more than the uplifting emotion of a success story is the schadenfreude of watching that success come tumbling down.  So when an idea comes to the fore, the critics ooze from the woodwork and their primary tactic is divide and conquer.  Label it, frame the debate, and the fight is won or lost before the story is even told.

For a long time in the circles I travel in this was not a problem because the ideas embodied in what some have come to call SOLE food (Sustainable, Organic, Local, & Ethical) were not perceived as a threat to the established paradigm.  Recent successes such as Michael Pollan’s work have, however, shined a very bright spotlight on advocates of real food.  As a result, people who have been toiling at these ideas for decades are becoming targets of powerful interests in the Big Food lobby.  Such is the case this week at WeeklyStandard.com, where Missouri Farm Bureau vice president Blake Hurst has found his most recent audience. Read more

Deputy Secretary Merrigan Addresses EcoFarm

It was by no means Kathleen Merrigan’s first trip to the Ecological Farming Conference (EcoFarm). But when the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture stood at a podium to address last week’s annual gathering of farmers, retailers, processors, and advocates, it was clear she had never had quite such a crucial role to play at the event. Now on its 30th year, EcoFarm regularly draws a large percentage of those who have been envisioning and shaping the sustainable food movement for years.

Since Merrigan’s appointment to the USDA, she’s been under a great deal of pressure to make big changes happen quickly. She began Friday’s address with a direct plea for patience, much like we have heard from President Obama in recent months. “I come to this job with great ambition — and a great history with many of you in the audience — but also with an understanding that change takes time,” she told the audience. Read more

Deputy Secretary of Ag Merrigan Live on Facebook Today

Today, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan holds her second chat on Facebook at 3pm eastern time, part of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. Go here to watch it live. The focus of today’s chat will be a discussion around getting food from farmers to local schools, what has become known as “farm to school,” part of the necessary groundwork for improving the cost and quality of school lunches. In case you missed the first chat introducing the initiative, Obamafoodorama has the video here.