ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food: I Ate the White House Salad Then Followed the Money

Kathleen Merrigan, Sam Kass

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and White House Chef Sam Kass

I had the pleasure of dining on a lunch prepared by the White House Chef Sam Kass and so did tens of other USDA employees for whom he was making a salad with grilled chicken, apparently a favorite of the Obama family.

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan donned a hair net and sanitary gloves to help him while talking with the employees in line. This was an effort - okay, photo op - to play up the local and regional initiatives that the USDA is launching this week in a program called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, led by Merrigan.

While the salad was a pleasant change from the usual fare at the USDA cafeteria, what seems far more significant is the program itself.

USDA labeling

Nutrition and source labeling at USDA cafeteria as part of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

Although the press release mentioned $65 million in grants for the initiative this week, the figure obscures a key memo that Merrigan wrote on August 26 in which it's clear that many more millions -- in fact, hundreds of millions potentially -- could be available for local food systems. (HT to ObamaFoodorama).

But here's the key: non-profits, rural businesses, organic dairy associations (I'm thinking of one in particular), farmers, processors, need to apply for this money. It's there. They just don't know it.

One USDA staffer who has sat in on the biweekly meetings with Merrigan said it wasn't understood in-house that budgeted money could be targeted to build out local and regional food systems, "because no one had ever really thought about it before. We used the money for things like rural fire stations and hospitals or community centers, all really good things that are needed but don't do a lot to build up local food systems." 

Merrigan was a bit more blunt when I button-holed her.  "I understood that some of this money had been used to build fast food restaurants," she said. I got the distinct feeling such projects wouldn't be a rural priority for USDA any more.

So how much money is available?

According to the Merrigan memo (download PDF), one program alone, the Community Facilities Program, had more than $930 million in loan funds and $31 million in grants still available. (The memo lists relevant web sites to apply for the programs).

This money is targeted for community projects run by non-profits, local governments or Indian tribes, and it could, for example, pay for a kitchen for cooking classes, where farmers could drop off food. It might also fund farmers markets or community food banks. Last year, these loans averaged $665,229 each -- pretty good stimulus for a farmers' market.

Second, there's a business and loan guarantee program, which basically removes the risk from a private lender in making a loan in these tight-fisted times.

Through fiscal 2012, the USDA will set aside 5% of these loans for local and regional initiatives, such as setting up distribution facilities, or marketing local food. Five percent doesn't sound like a lot except when you consider it will amount to $100 million next year. I know a few regional food distribution co-ops that could use that money. They fall under the program as long as they transport their products no more than 400 miles. Bingo! The ones I'm thinking of probably qualify.

Finally, there's the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, which provides funding to agricultural producers who "add value" to products by processing or marketing them. Like selling to schools that want local food, or helping direct-market grass-fed beef to restaurants. It's aimed at farmers, ranchers, co-ops and other business ventures. Up to $100,000 is available for planning activities and up to $300,000 for working capital grants.

So don't let the programs specifically announced this week obscure the bigger picture. The USDA seems like it's making a multi-year effort to channel program money to local and regional food systems, but remember: it won't be spent if people don't ask for it.

Sign on USDA Soda

All in all, I'd say Merrigan & Kass's USDA lunch was a success. I only heard a few quibbles about the price -- about 3 bucks more than the standard salad with chicken. As if to make the point, a guy in the check out line in front of me bought a burger and chips and soda for $6.13 (so much for the sign at left). My grilled chicken salad and water cost $11.99. 

While the new vision seems on the mark, obviously there's much more policy work to be done to correct this dispiriting burger/salad disparity.

- Samuel Fromartz

USDA Launches Local Foods Blitz, Bans Fried Foods and Donuts in Cafeteria for a Day

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 

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

USDA's Merrigan on Organic Standards: "The honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth"

In an interview with Organic Processing magazine, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan made extensive comments on the national organic program, regulations and the state of the industry. Here are some excerpts.

...In terms of enforcement, the integrity of the organic label is fundamental to the growth of this industry. If consumers don’t have confidence in the label, industry growth will stall—it’s just that simple. It’s not a matter of expanding standards, but making sure the standards we have are enforced. I understand that it takes a while for standards to really sink in and for people to fully understand the rules of the game.

But, the honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth; that we mean them and if people are not adhering to the standards, they’re going to be kicked out of the program. It will take staff work and it will take eyes out in the field because the USDA can’t be everywhere all the time. Part of our enforcement program has to be based on whistle blowing within the industry itself.

OP: What other challenges do you see for organic? Do you have suggestions about ways in which the industry will be able to meet these?

Merrigan: I’m going to tell you what I think the biggest challenge is—and I know I’m like a broken record on this, or a broken CD or iPhone—but the point is that the biggest challenge the organic community faces is internal. It is about not letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”; not to self-destruct by pointing accusing fingers at each other.

There’s definitely a need for whistle blowing on enforcement issues, but I think this community sometimes explodes issues unnecessarily on the front pages of the newspapers, which leads to consumer confusion and erosion in belief for the organic label. People need to keep their eyes on the prize and think of this as a long-term haul and to just be really cautious before they throw bombs. (Emphasis added).

OP: How do you think the Obama administration is going to help support organic growth, and what opportunities do you see for organic now that there’s finally support from Washington?

Merrigan: President Obama and the First Lady are deeply interested in healthy food choices and are particularly concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic in this country.

More than ever, they are going to bring visibility to the issues of healthy eating. That presents those of us working at USDA with great opportunities, as well as great opportunities for those in the organic community.