ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Local Food Advocates Pumped by USDA Initiative

I asked a range of people involved in local food systems to react to the announcements last week by the USDA in promoting local food. Here's what they had to say:

From California, Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change:

After so many years in the trenches of the struggle to awaken the nation to the value of reconnecting with producers and the importance of food production, it is totally thrilling to see the USDA champion a valued cause. I agree with Secretary Vilsack that "local and regional food systems" are a powerful leverage point for economic, health, and environmental improvement. With this latest initiative, the People's Garden and the White House Garden, the Secretary and Administration are moving the nation into a new era, which I feel will be seen historically as a renewal and renaissance for American agriculture and rural communities, which have suffered degradation for too long. I heartily applaud the USDA, the Secretary and the President!

In the video announcement, Secretary Vilsack did point out that USDA will use "existing programs" to shed light on foodsheds. This is good, but the concept is so divergent from the past trend that we may find soon, that either existing programs will need significant retooling, or that a new, specialized program focused on peri-urban agriculture could be very powerful. But I am open to working with what we currently have, particularly until the next farm bill and given the effort to contain the deficit. The farm bill is the most logical place to reorient resources. I have faith that this Secretary and this Administration will be focused on what is needed to make it work.

From Oregon, Deborah Kane, vice president of farming and food, Ecotrust:

It’s fantastic. Secretary Vilsack posted a youtube video and invited the American people to join him in a conversation about food and the role it plays in our lives. That’s extraordinary. When he first joined the department he said USDA was the people’s department because it was the entity focused on food - something that is so sacrosanct to us all. He drew a subtle but important distinction and reminded us all that agriculture, while perhaps a secondary and nebulous thought to most, is what give us something we’re all intimately familiar with, food. Turns out he meant it. I love seeing him invite us to the table, so to speak, to talk about food as if we all have a vested interest. We indeed do. 

And since he’s invited a real conversation, I suspect he’ll get it from both sides. Remember his confirmation hearing when the diminutive remarks were made about organic hobby farmers? This week Vilsack has legitimized “alternative” agriculture and I suspect will only continue to do so.

The funding announcements are also interesting. So far it looks like repackaging of old programs, which is great because, again, it elevates alternative agriculture and legitimizes it within the Department. Brings it out of the shadows, as it were. I’ll be watching too to see new funding streams come on line as well.

From Iowa, Rich Pirog, marketing and food systems initiative leader at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture:

The latest announcement further reinforces what has been over the past year and half strong interest and engagement on local and regional food from many of the federal USDA agencies I work with. We've had USDA folks at the national level come out to Iowa and interact with our local groups - it is quite encouraging.

I think a key to making these resources as effective as possible is the strength of the networks that must be built among the state and regional USDA agency representatives and the non-profits, farm organizations, university, and state departments of agriculture and health.

Here in Iowa we have a strong culture of collaboration across these different organizations, and so we are moving forward rapidly to ensure that these resources will be leveraged well with to make the difference with farmers, communities, students, and other groups.

From Pennsylvania, Chris Fullerton, director of consumer outreach, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture:

It’s certainly refreshing to hear the USDA encourage folks to ‘Know Your Farmer’ – our Buy Fresh Buy Local program in Pennsylvania has been making that call for almost a decade now as part of a nationwide effort led by the FoodRoutes Network – but to back up this slogan with actual bucks? That’s icing on the cake.

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