Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting Serious About Local and Regional Food: The USDA, The East Wing, and The West Wing Working Together

Kathleen Merrigan wants to be the financial matchmaker for the wedding of policy and paradigm shift...
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan just sent out a really exciting memo: "Harnessing USDA rural development programs to support local and regional food systems," which goes far beyond fantasies of how a new food system might look, and straight into how this gets both funded and created. Merrigan's new memo details how to use USDA funding for the kind of projects that are being developed by First Lady Michelle Obama and her food policy team, such as school lunch infrastructure, farmers markets, farm to school programs, cooking classes. Mrs. Obama's food policy team is led by White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, and also includes Senior Adviser Jocelyn Frye and Melody Barnes. (Photo: Ms. Merrigan, in her official USDA portrait)

Over the last few months, Merrigan has been working with the First Lady's team
, as has her boss, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, and all of this has been fairly under the radar. But it's clear the USDA is now completely in line with the First Lady's goals of more nutritious, healthy foods for everyone, as well as interested in developing the kind of community and school infrastructures that makes this possible. Over this summer, Secretary Vilsack's new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign has been the most visible part of USDA's newly honed policies...and it's a good indicator that USDA is very interested in supporting smaller and family farmers, with a renewed focus on local and regional food systems. All this food agenda work is in direct support of many of President Obama's other goals, too, for a wide range of initiatives, such as saving billions of dollars in health care costs by reducing food-created diseases like obesity and diabetes; better educational achievement, because kids are nourished; keeping local wealth within local economies; reducing climate change...etc. Secretary Vilsack has been talking about these initiatives all summer on the Rural Tour (as well as handing out funding for hundreds of projects).

Merrigan opens her memo by writing "I suspect that many USDA programs are under-utilized by those seeking to build local and regional food systems. I would like to play the role of matchmaker during this administration...I will work to help USDA program administrators to understand how our programs may better serve your efforts to build local and regional food systems..."

Merrigan then continues the memo with a really aspirational "Imagine if" format, in which she sounds exactly like Mrs. Obama--and, more recently, like President Obama. She writes:

Imagine an NGO receiving USDA grant money to construct a community kitchen where farmers drop off produce and families join cooking classes that teach about healthy eating while everyone prepares fresh nutritious meals to bring home...Imagine a community using USDA money to construct an open-sided structure to house a farmers market...Imagine a school using USDA loan money to set up cold storage as part of a larger effort to retrofit the school cafeteria to buy produce directly from farmers and return cooking capacity for school lunch...Imagine...

The First Lady and her team have been busily "imagining" and talking about these things for months; Merrigan's cooking class idea mirrors the First Lady's cooking-is-critical initiative, and is perhaps the most unprecedented idea coming from USDA, which has historically given cooking little attention (food safety guidelines are where USDA's interest in cooking has previously ended). But everyone now seems to be embracing cooking as a crucial component of healthy eating--including bestselling author Michael Pollan, who recently bemoaned the pandemic lack of cooking skills in America. Re-teaching America how to cook has emerged as a major element of the First Lady's food agenda, under the assumption that it's impossible to pursue a personal--or public--nutrition agenda if people have no idea what to do with their food. The East Wing, the West Wing, and the USDA have also been busily working to come up with ways to combat the fact that our national dinner plate is not so much devoid of nutritious foods, but swamped with bad foods, which was recently explicated, in grim detail, in this USDA study on food access. Cooking will help greatly. President Obama's recent announcement of a White House Farmer's Market is just one more piece of this same pie, so to speak. And it should be noted that encouraging the growth of more local and regional foodsheds will greatly improve food safety, too, which is another West Wing food/Ag initiative, under the rubric of the President's Food Safety Working Group. Local and regional food producers, because they are smaller in scale, cannot create massive, national food poisoning outbreaks, such as happened with the Peanut Butter Corporation of America salmonella debacle.

After the imagining part of her memo, Merrigan gets completely technical, and provides careful guidelines on how to be successful at applying for what amounts to millions of dollars of state and local USDA cash, and includes eligibility details for funding from the Community Facilities Program, The Business Industry Guarantee Loan Program, and The Value-Added Producer Grant Program. There's explanations and encouragement and weblinks for applicants on how to get their growing programs, facilities, and organizations funded. It's one more welcome step toward creating a more balanced food system, working within the structures that already exist...and by creating new, complementary ones. It's also part of what your intrepid blogger calls the First Lady's Food Policy End Run--there'll be no sitting around waiting for Congress to get moving on food initiatives, which could take years. Mrs. Obama has spent months encouraging everyone from individual backyard gardeners to school and community groups to public foundations--and the USDA--to get active for change. For the first time, we're beginning to get a glimpse of what could be accomplished if the goals and initiatives of the USDA and the East Wing and the West Wing really are integrated. And while a complete paradigm shift will also require private initiatives, especially for school lunch changes (such as United Fresh Produce Association's new salad bars in schools project), this is an unprecedented move on the part of USDA to support real transformation...by focusing its resources. Seven short months ago, Merrigan's memo was almost unimaginable. Today, it was released to little fanfare...proof of how far we've rapidly gone in the paradigm shift.

*Read Merrigan's full memo here [pdf].
*H/T Deb Eschmeyer, of the National Farm to School Network & Center for Food & Justice, Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College