I don't usually get calls from the USDA, let alone the deputy secretary, but there Kathleen Merrigan was on the phone from her car and it wasn't a prank.
She wanted to talk about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign that the USDA launched this week, which centers on building buzz around local and regional food systems and "spurring economic opportunity." Merrigan is chairing the initiative, which comes not a moment too soon.
The USDA has finally recognized how important and vital local and regional food systems are -- and is tapping into the vibrant activity already underway by making an effort to open up its doors and purse strings.
Among other things, the USDA is
- loosening rules on interstate meat commerce, to help smaller processors, and making grants on rural economic initiatives.
- making it easier for institutions like schools to buy locally.
- offering grants to improve community food security, to be announced Wednesday.
- emphasizing direct marketing, with the launch of the White House farmers' market, and farmers' markets grants on Thursday.
- pushing the idea that "ag is back" with a new web portal launching Friday and a Facebook web chat with Merrigan.
This sounds like a lot of hoopla -- you can review the press materials at the USDA links above -- but I did get a chance to ask a few questions, most notably, "What is this about?"
Merrigan said she has been quietly heading a task force since May to push local and regional agricultural initiatives. Representatives from various department programs are meeting biweekly to discuss how best to achieve that goal. Like Obama, Merrigan and her team seem impatient about getting things done.
"The secretary told me he wanted me to take on the local and regional food challenge -- it was a top priority of my job aside from the USDA budget," Merrigan said. "And, I'll always be involved in organic."
Given the size of the USDA - 114,000 employees - Merrigan felt it wasn't imperative to create new programs but to increase outreach to existing ones (and perhaps, though unstated, light a fire within the agency on this new priority). The effort also involves tweaking existing regulations and programs to make these goals easier to achieve.
The initiative even extends to the USDA cafeteria, where your intrepid blogger has actually eaten (I recommend the House Cafeteria up on the Hill instead). In any case, the USDA is offering dishes with locally grown products all week long.
Merrigan said the cafeteria is also banning donuts and fried foods on Wednesday and putting a sign on the soda machine "have you considered water, juice or milk?" Sounds almost radical.
"Maybe this will be my last act as deputy," she quipped.
But if staff groan about food police, at least they get to see a celebrity on hand: White House Chef Sam Kass will be doing a cooking demo in the USDA cafeteria on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the action shifts to farmers markets, when the one down the street from the White House opens. Merrigan will be on hand. The USDA will also announce a series of farmers' market promotion grants, and research monies aimed at local food systems in the northeast.
Finally, on Friday, it is trying its hand at internet democracy and launching a web site that includes outreach to citizens for their ideas. Not sure how this effort at crowd-sourcing will work out, given what happened when the White House tried it. But I gotta say, this is a sea change from the last team in charge.
- Samuel Fromartz