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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

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

Last Mile Access: Let the Hotel Valet Open the Door to a Food Conversation

The valet made me do it. We bared our souls and talked with each other about food. We did it in the middle of the tastefully decorated lobby of a reputable Cannery Row hotel in Monterey, CA. It began as a very unexpected moment, and has become one of my all-time favorite experiences talking about access to good food. Because it was a conversation not with a chef, foodie or expert. It was with a regular person who longs to connect to food and is somehow stuck, marooned on an island alone, full of latent desire.

The valet—let’s call him Paul—asked me the very question I yearn to hear, and with him I had the discussion that I never tire of. Paul had parked my car when I checked into the hotel, had smiled professionally at me and held the door three mornings in a row when I sashayed excitedly out into the sunlight. The cause of my excitement was a food issue conference hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Media Institute is an annual gathering of journalists and experts who cover food system issues ranging from sustainable seafood to GMOs. It is the highlight of my year, second only to the Ecological Farming Association annual meeting. 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.