A Q & A about Republican pushback, school lunch legislation, and some advice for citizens...
The Farmers Market By The White House had a big excited crowd and some high-profile Obama administration visitors when it launched for a second season on Thursday afternoon. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was on hand for the ceremonial ringing of the opening cow bells, then held what turned into an impromptu mini press conference.
For the bell ringing, a local tradition, Deputy Merrigan and market co-directors Ann Yonkers and Bernadine Price were joined by White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass. One of DC's most famous and most-loved chefs, José Andrés, also rang the cow bells. Dr. Zeke Emanuel, one of President Obama's special health policy advisers, who is credited with being a driving force behind the creation of the market, was also at the opening. (Deputy Merrigan, above, with Andrés, and his giant vat of paella)
Andrés was the featured Chef at Market, and he created a massive vat of paella, which took almost two hours and the help of five assistant chefs. Andrés was surrounded the entire time by onlookers who were thrilled to watch him cook, and free plates of the delish dish were handed out when the giant paella was done (Andrés, in case you're new here, has also been a guest chef at the White House, numerous times).
When Deputy Merrigan stepped up to take a turn pushing one of the paella paddles with Andrés, foodies with cameras got even more excited. The Deputy is very well known, thanks to being the public face of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and a year of exhausting travel promoting USDA's huge slate of initiatives. But she was just named to the 2010 Time 100 list of most influential people in the world, so a photo of her cooking with the much-beloved Andrés is pop food culture gold. They were surrounded by people with cameras large and small. Emanuel also chatted with Andrés, and was spotted enjoying a plate of the paella.
The Q & A
After paella patrol, Deputy Merrigan took a few minutes to chat with Ob Fo, in a rapid Q & A about food politics and policy. As background, on April 27, three high-profile Republicans sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, requesting more information about Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. Senate Ag Committee Ranking Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) questioned dedicating funding to the initiative, and wrote, in part "we have serious misgivings about the direction of the Know Your Farmers program...this spending...is aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets....American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.”
Obama Foodorama: Any response to the Republican pushback against Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food?
(Merrigan squints for a moment, considering...)
Deputy Merrigan: I'm really excited to have an open robust dialogue and to inform the public about the opportunities we have in furthering the connections between farmers and consumers. So I think we're in a good space. We're excited about what's going on, and we have a lot of good news to share.
Ob Fo: On creating more Farmers Market programs across the US, what's USDA's future goal, in terms of growth?
(We're now surrounded by other reporters and bloggers, who also have their digital devices--cameras and voice recorders--pointed at the Deputy, since she's going on the record)
Deputy Merrigan: The Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal that went to Capitol Hill had an increase in that arena, and so did the Farm Bill, that Congress passed, with the Farmers Market Promotion Program. So we're implementing the law that Congress asked us to implement, and we're also trying to expand access for people with SNAP benefits and WIC benefits, to avail themselves at Farmers Markets, which is one of many strategies to deliver safe wholesome foods to Americans in need.
(More reporters have gathered; the Deputy is a magnet)
Ob Fo: Any thoughts on the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, with the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act 2010?
Deputy Merrigan: We're really excited that the Senate committee passed the bill. It's a good start in the process. We're hoping the House will be as energized, and perhaps even find some more resources to put to Child Nutrition Reauthorization. We're really looking forward to having a new statute that we can implement at USDA. It's a high priority for the First Lady, it's a high priority for the President, and an extremely high priority for Secretary Vilsack and myself.
Ob Fo: What's your best advice for citizens and advocates who would like to help, such as for getting more funding included in the bill? For instance, petitions, or letter writing, or contacting members of Congress directly?
Deputy Merrigan: I think the most important thing that people can do is get informed that this is the year for Child Nutrition Reauthorization. There are a variety of organizations that have a variety of viewpoints. I'm not taking sides on this that or the other thing, but people should know that this is the year that very important decisions are made around how their children are fed in schools, on how mothers in need get access to good nutrition. It's a great opportunity. So people who care--all they have to do is Google, and they'll find some information, I'm sure.
It should be noted that it was terrific of the Deputy to hold the impromptu presser, which was definitely not on her official schedule. As she left, surrounded by assistants, she had a flock of people following her and continuing to shoot photos.
As for Googling information about school food advocates, celeb chef Jamie Oliver is not recommended by this blogger as someone who is a good resource for American policy issues and initiatives. Below are some excellent resources for information and campaigns, but this is by no means a comprehensive list:
*School Nutrition Association at www.schoolnutrition.org
*Healthy Schools Campaign at www.healthyschoolscampaign.org
*Chef Ann Cooper's Lunch Box campaign at www.thelunchbox.org
*Slow Food USA's Time For Lunch at www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/campaign/time_for_lunch/
*National Farm to School Network at www.farmtoschool.org/
*Fooducate at www.fooducate.com/blog/
*Food Safety News at www.foodsafetynews.com/
>Above: The bell ringing.
The Farmers Market By The White House is run by FRESHFARM Markets, and features farmers and food producers from the Chesapeake Bay area foodshed. It continues every Thursday through mid- November, from 3:00-7:00 PM. Address: 810 Vermont Avenue, NW (between H St, NW and I St, NW). Map: Click here. Nearest Metro stop: McPherson Square (Blue and Orange Lines). MetroBus stops: S2, S4, S9, 42, X2, L2, G8 and 11Y.
Related: First Lady Michelle Obama was the bell ringer when the Farmers Market By The White House opened in Septmeber of 2009. Ob Fo was with Dep. Merrigan for the launch of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food last September.
*Merrigan/Andrés photos by Obama Foodorama; bell ringing photo by Amanda Eamich/USDA.