Monday, September 14, 2009

Obama Foodorama Joins Deputy Ag Secretary Kathleen Merrigan for a Farm Visit...& Gets The Scoop on "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food"

A week of special events for USDA's new initiative: Sam Kass cooks lunch for the public; the White House Farmers Market opens; School lunches get a big boost; USDA launches a new website....
Your intrepid blogger was with Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan this morning, at a "micro" Rural Tour event
at Tree and Leaf Farm in Loudon County,Virginia. The visit was to kick off USDA's new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, a coordinated effort among all USDA agencies to revitalize rural communities. "Removing barriers" is the subtitle for the initiative, and it's the start of a historic moment in agriculture, because after decades of neglect, USDA is seeking to make it much easier--through changes in policy and the dedication of funding-- to foster "wealth creation" for local communities. It's part of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Deputy Secretary's mission to fulfill President Obama's campaign trail pledges to renew rural economies. (Field of Local Dreams, above--from L: Zach Lester, Georgia O'Neal, Steven Mandzik, and Dep. Sec. Merrigan at the farm)

Tree and Leaf Farm is run by Georgia O'Neal and Zachariah Lester, and it's a small growing concern--just five acres--about an hour outside of DC, in the middle of Virginia horse country. Despite its size, the farm produces thousands of pounds of food each year, and is the kind smaller concern that the USDA is seeking to not only support, but to help thrive. And to reflect the focus on "small and local" that the KYF2 campaign highlights, there was only a small, local group in attendance for the kick off: The Deputy Secretary; her senior adviser Suzanne Palmieri; Luke Knowles, the Dep's policy adviser; blogger and sustainability activist Steven Mandzik of A Clean Life, and Obama Foodorama. It seems entirely fitting for the new USDA--which has moved rapidly into the 21st century since President Obama entered office--that a BIG announcement would take place before a small group, sitting around a wood picnic table on the porch of the farmers' house, eating muffins that were made with blueberries from the farm, and eggs from the neighbor. The KYF2 campaign is a brilliant campaign to not only support local and regional food production, but to get Americans to return to our roots as an agriculturally literate society, whether it's by growing food, purchasing it locally--or cooking it. More on the larger policy implications tomorrow, as well as the discussion we had about local Ag issues and policy, but first:

The schedule of events for the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Fest:

Tuesday: Farm to Institution issues will be highlighted, and Deputy Secretary Merrigan will make a big announcement about procurement procedures that will make it easier for school lunch programs to buy from local farmers. School lunch advocates will no doubt be over the moon about this one, because Farm to School is probably number one on the wish list for those seeking to amp up the national school lunch program.

Wednesday: Celeb Chef Day at USDA! White House assistant chef Sam Kass will be cooking in the USDA cafeteria for Eating Healthy Day--and the cafeteria is open to the public. If you're in DC, you can eat like the Obamas; Kass is First Lady Michelle Obama's Food Initiative Coordinator, responsible for her food policy agenda, as well as being an amazing chef. This week, all USDA cafeteria foods are locally sourced, and fried foods have been banned (which elicited this comment from Deputy Secretary Merrigan: "We'll see if I last the week as Deputy Secretary with that in place.") There will also be an announcement about an excellent high-tek indoor gardening initiative for the cafeteria. The USDA Cafeteria is in the South building at USDA headquarters, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, and is open 11 AM-2 PM. Chef Kass will be cooking between noon and 1 PM.

Thursday: The White House Farmers Market debuts, and in support, Merrigan will announce farmers market promotions program grants for markets in the northeast corridor, which is an ARS project. The local foods party favor that'll be available to celebrate the opening: Guidelines for locating your own Farmers Market on Federal Lands. Whoa. The Market is open to the public; it's near the White House, on the 800 block of Vermont Avenue, between H and I Streets, NW. 3 to 7 PM.

Friday: Ag is Back! There'll be a live Facebook chat with Dep. Sec. Merrigan, and the launch of the official Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website, which will include all kinds of social media elements, and eventually have information links to local and regional food resources around the US. Details about the site address and time of the chat will be posted tomorrow--but mark your calendar to log on and join the most crucial conversation in AgMerica. Below: Dep. Sec Merrigan with the small-scale tractor used on Tree and Leaf Farm.