Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food...Know Your Tactical Team. USDA Announces Big Plans and $50 million For Local School Lunches

With both the White House and USDA focusing on healthy eating and local sourcing, the paradigm shift in American agriculture is speeding the plow...
Obama Foodorama vi
sited Tree and Leaf Farm yesterday, with Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, for the kickoff of USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative (KYF2). To celebrate the big new project, there's a week of special USDA "surprises" and events planned. Today's "surprise" is terrific: Local foods for school lunches just got a big boost, with Dep. Sec. Merrigan's announcement of the Farm-To-School Tactical Teams. These Ag versions of SWAT teams will tour America’s school cafeterias, looking for ways to help administrators buy more locally grown food--and states will be given $50 million to use to purchase local foods. For comparison: That $50 million dedicated to farm to school foods is as much as the USDA devoted this year to encourage organics. (Top photo: Dep. Sec. Merrigan at Tree and Leaf; small photo is more of the farm)

The Loudon county, Virginia, farm where Merrigan kicked off the campaign is owned by husband and wife team Georgia O'Neal and Zachariah Lester, and it's the perfect example of all that’s fantastic in the small farming world—as well as the challenges that smaller farmers face. And that's precisely why Merrigan chose it: The issues facing small farmers are very different than those encountered by bigger concerns, and connections with their communities are critical for economic survival. Before she became second in command at USDA, Merrigan taught Ag policy at Tufts University, and she has a reputation for thinking up creative solutions to problems, simply by using the tools at hand. The KYF2 is precisely this kind of project, and as chair, Merrigan has been leading a team of reps from every agency at USDA to develop the initiative. They've been working since May, and she noted that it was “time to come out of the woodwork, because no one has been talking about food and farming this much since Americans left their farms decades ago.” (Above: From left, Zach in green, Georgia in red, Dep. Sec. Merrigan, sustainable activist Steven Madznik, and Ob Fo in black, hearing about naughty deer)

About $65 million in funding that’s already scattered among various USDA and Farm bBill programs will now go to smaller farming, and there are policy tweaks that will help, too. The point of it all is economic development: By connecting local consumers with their local food producers, local wealth stays in local economies, and rural communities get revitalized. Merrigan is using her talent for creatively re-imagining rural policy, and it's exciting that it's all happening without the huge lag time that waiting for Congressional funding--or policy approval--necessarily entails. And while economic recovery for rural economies is the point, the happy outcome is big support for a different kind of food system. (Photo: Merrigan's history-making plans are contained in a plain old school binder)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack dropped hints about KYF2 all summer while on the Rural Tour, and it was amazing to watch as he used more and more language that was previously the sole province of the fringiest of foodies. Sec. Vilsack is now a happy advocate for fruits and veg, for gardening, for sustainability, for climate and land stewardship concerns, for the need to cook more, for the need to become food literate, for local, local, local. Sec. Vilsack began his tenure at USDA under a flood of negative press from the sustainable food world, who were collectively suspicious of his ties to large industrial concerns as governor of Iowa (and no doubt there will still be quibblers) but with his new advocacy of small and local, he's rapidly emerged as the shadow twin of White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass.

A national conversation, a national campaign: USDA techs up
Just as the White House has been working hard to get out its good food messaging, Secs. Vilsack and Merrigan are fully aware that for the KYF2 campaign to succeed, there needs to be a big educational and community element, too. Their goal is a “national conversation” about food that is ongoing and open-ended, and will include use of social media and a dedicated Know Your Farmer website, as well as Youtube videos (see Sec. Vilsack's first Youtube video here, and you can comment on it, too). In this, USDA has trumped the White House, which doesn't have a dedicated food section on WhiteHouse.gov, and has yet to run a food-related Facebook chat with Kass or anyone else on the food policy team. Merrigan, on the other hand, will be hosting a FB chat this Friday, and she said that she's been busy learning the ropes.

"I don't get it," Merrigan commented. "Why do people like Facebook? I would never be on it except for this."

The Facebook address and Know Your Farmer site address aren't yet available, but you can send questions to KnowYourFarmer@usda.gov.

USDA has now trumped the White House in the school lunch arena, too, with today's announcement of the Tactical Teams. But it's a completely friendly competition to promote better food and health: Kass will be cooking at the USDA cafeteria tomorrow, for Healthy Eating Day, in an event that's open to the public. Donuts and fried foods have been banned from the cafeteria for the week; the address is below. USDA will have a presence at Thursday's grand opening of the White House Farmer's Market--and yes, First Lady Michelle Obama will make an appearance. If both the White House and USDA continue to aggressively advocate for local and regional foodscapes, re-developing a vibrant food economy is a sure bet, with implications not only for farmers and for health care reform (that crucial reduction in chronic food related diseases…) but also for preserving a dynamic Ag environment. Encouraging regional food economies can also have a big impact on food safety, which USDA and the White House are both interested in. Small-scale foodsheds with a limited geographic scope dramatically reduce the possibility of a nation-wide food poisoning outbreak that originates with a single, massive producer that distributes nationally (Eg spinach, ground beef, peanut butter...). (Above: Georgia shows the Deputy Secretary how a bean trellis is made)

Tree and Leaf Farm as an object lesson in small Ag
Despite the recession in the rest of the economy, Tree and Leaf has a thriving business. Georgia and Zach produce more than 40 varieties of vegetables, including rare and heirloom, and crops are sold at three different farmers markets. There are restaurants sales, and a new relationship with a caterer. Georgia and Zach are so busy, in fact, that they were asked to be part of the White House Farmers Market, but had to say no. But while they've been succesful, they’ve also faced the hard risks and challenges that all smaller farmers endure—weather, insects, blight, etc.. As we stood out in their fields, by a canopy of beans Zach had designed, Merrigan asked pointed questions about exactly what goes on at Tree and Leaf, and it was clear she was thinking up ways that it could benefit from KYF2. (Above, Georgia with son Owen out in the fields)

Some challenges: Georgia and Zach lease their land, for a shockingly high amount of monthly rent. They’ve spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours boosting the quality of their soil with amendments in order to grow better vegetables—but when their lease is up, they’ll have to start over elsewhere. There’s a huge problem with deer eating their crops; the growing area is fenced, but better, deer-secure fencing is incredibly expensive. Figuring out better direct marketing techniques would help, too; Zach and Georgia could have a big local CSA project where they sold to near-by residents, instead of having to drive more than an hour to DC for farmers markets. Although DC is considered local in food speak, it’s not Georgia and Zach’s own community—so they’re “relocating” their wealth elsewhere, as well as spending money on gas—and contributing to greenhouse problems. If they were hooked up as a supplier for the local school lunch program, this, too, would truly localize them. According to USDA stats, the median age of US farmers is now 57—an aging population, but Georgia and Zach are both under 40, and stand to be farming for many years. For USDA, they make good economic sense as an investment. (Above: Dep. Sec. Merrigan and Zach Lester chatting at the picnic table)

Plain and simple, KYF2 stands to be a game changer for smaller farmers like Zach and Georgia as well as rural economies if it continues to evolve—and a game changer for eaters, too. Merrigan called it the start of a “four year adventure,” and it will be. And while the initiative does nothing to address the bad practices of big industrialized Ag concerns—such as air and water polluting CAFOS, or the overuse of animal antibiotics, or major problems with massive slaughterhouses—it tweaks the American food system in a much needed way. It gives eaters a choice about foods, it helps create a food literate population, it helps create a healthier citizenry. It supports farms and farmers who are not producing the kind of monoculture crops that are the primary ingredient in nutritionally questionable foods. Bigger industrialized Ag concerns have received most of the benefits of USDA support for decades, and it’s fantastic to see small and local getting such well-deserved attention and support. Best of all, it truly will revitalize rural economies. (Dep. Sec. Merrigan, above)

*Tomorrow's KYF2 Event: White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass will be cooking between noon and 1 PM in the USDA Cafeteria, in the South building at USDA headquarters, 1400 Independence Avenue SW. Open to the public; the cafeteria is open 11 AM-2 PM. Thursday debut: The White House Farmers Market, on the 800 block of Vermont Avenue, between H and I Streets, NW. 3 to 7 PM.