Interview with USDA’s Kathleen Merrigan

We interviewed Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week by phone about her recent James Beard Leadership award, what’s up next, life at home and her views on school food service. Time Magazine named her one of 100 people who most affect the world in 2010 and Gourmet Magazine featured her in 2009, shortly after she was nominated for her position with USDA.

USDA’s Kathleen Merrigan

At left, Merrigan contemplates a purchase at a farmers’ market. She and her husband shop often.

Merrigan was one of five recipients to be honored in New York in July, as one of the country’s most effective change agents in our culinary world. She received The James Beard Foundation 2012 Leadership Award.

She was selected for her efforts to strengthen the critical connection between farmers and consumers, to create new opportunities for farmers and ranchers, to support regional food infrastructure and to bring agriculture into our daily conversations through efforts such as USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

 

Who’s Cooking: Congratulations on your award, Kathleen. The James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards recognize people who are making the change in the culinary world – what do you see as some important changes that still need to be addressed?

Kathleen Merrigan: Well, I’m excited about the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Initiative, which is a team USDA effort. On October 4th we are introducing the 3.0 version, with a GPS [sic. global positioning system] mapping tool. We will add hundreds of data points that put money in local and regional food systems. The USDA is so huge – Agricultural Marketing Service [which buys the food for the school lunch program] is only 1 of 17 agencies. How can someone figure out how to navigate? This is the reason we started the compass.

But then we said, USDA is not the only game in town.  President Obama made the connection about job creation and has started with other federal players such as the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Transportation.  It will take a lot of energy to sustain the effort – integrating waste management and other agricultural products like forest products, aquaculture, floral and so on.

How do you increase the number of farmer and ranchers in the country? This is another important change to address, the average age of an American farmer is 59 – we have to repopulate our rural lands.

As far as I’m concerned I’m just getting started.

Who’s Cooking:  I understand you and your husband have 2 school age children. Could you describe a typical family meal at your home?

Kathleen Merrigan: My kids are in middle school, a 6th and 8th grader. True story – my husband is a gourmet cook. I’m clean up. We both shop at farmers markets and enjoy that. He takes his shopping seriously. We eat in season. He doesn’t use a cookbook. He has a knack for putting together wonderful meals.

Who’s Cooking: How does the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass relate to school lunch?

Kathleen Merrigan: If you go to the compass the narrative is very influential. What should we be thinking about when we think about infrastructure for building a local food system – farm to the institution is really important – because when we think about trends based on the last census, 2007 which came out in 2009 – we see a surge in small-scale young farmers selling direct. A lot of them are women.

The big guys are doing really well ($500,000 and above annual income) – but there is a disappearing middle. These are the farmers who are cannot make the family farm operation bottom line out. That’s where farm to school provides a real opportunity.

If a farm operation is too small, it doesn’t have the interest or volume to sell to a school district. If a farm operation is really big, it’s not your ‘cuppa tea. For mid-sized farm operations, getting into schools can be the difference between night and day on their bottom line.

Here at USDA, we are going to issue first round of grants to the farm to school programs all over the country at end of this month. We are also providing technical assistance to the farm to school programs.

Who’s Cooking: Do you have any words of inspiration for school food service directors and workers about Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food? What’s your message to them about their work with school children and their role in agricultural and farmer education?

Kathleen Merrigan: They have such an important role to play.  I thank them for their efforts. I celebrate what they do. The person behind the line makes such a difference in promoting good eating habits and getting to students to try new things. This fall USDA is putting in new standards from The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – more fruits and veggies on the school lunch plate and more variety.  School food service men and women are champions because of having to do a lot of new things. Their willingness to take on the challenges of this new Act is impressive.

Who’s Cooking: How do you see the conversation around food and agriculture becoming a daily one and how do you see your role in this changing conversation?

Kathleen Merrigan: I’ve been on a crusade to try to increase the literacy about American agriculture; I’ve been to 30 colleges speaking about it.  There are so many myths around agriculture, that any kind of conversation is a good thing.

What really helps is building local, regional food systems – if you’ve met a farmer you have a different attitude. You think about things in a fundamentally different way. I say too big agriculture, why worry about guys doing direct marketing? They are agriculture’s ambassadors. They make the connection with consumers across the countryside.

Who’s Cooking: Do you see place-based school lunch menus that reflect a particular state or region’s farming and ranching as a way to educate young people?

Kathleen Merrigan: Absolutely, there’s a lot going on. I like to highlight schools using baseball trading cards featuring farmers with the stats on the farm. Western Massachusetts, where I’m from, has a food processing center – bringing in food from local farmers, flash freezing, making it available year round for schools – bringing the farmers to the schools, to the economic table.

I always tell people about a dairy farmer I met in South Carolina, watching peaches being trucked from South Carolina to California, only to be trucked back to South Carolina to be sold in local grocery store. We’ve got to be able to do better than that.

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