April 29, 2011
Earlier this week The Atlantic held its annual Food Summit in Washington, DC. USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan gave the keynote address. Merrigan started by acknowledging that it is an exciting time for people working in the food and farm sectors since Americans are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, how it is produced, and who produces it.
Merrigan then spoke specifically about one of the Agency’s primary goals: healthier children and improved child nutrition programs. She referred to the most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization as “landmark legislation,” which passed on December 2010. Included in the bill is $5 million per year in mandatory funding for farm to school programs that NSAC and allied groups help secure.
Merrigan added that the USDA Farm to School Tactical Team will be releasing a report of its work later this spring and the Agency is talking about “school to farm” as an important hands-on educational opportunity for children, citing a study on how garden-based education improves science test scores, environmental awareness, and attitudes towards and consumption of fruits and vegetables. The tactical team will also help develop a “template for action” for the recently released rule on geographic preference, which allows institutions participating in child nutrition programs to prioritize local products.
Highlighting other successes in the growing local and regional food system movement and USDA programs, Merrigan spoke about the Agency’s investments in hoop houses, which allow farmers to extend the growing season and thus to extend connections between consumers and their local producers at farmers markets and through other direct marketing and retail outlets. She added that the USDA Know Your Farmer, Your Know Your Food initiative is “giving insight into what it means to be a farmer,” currently the profession of less than two percent of the U.S. population.
Finally, Merrigan discussed the important role of sustainable agriculture including the “groundbreaking research” coming out of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). She said the Agency will be “looking at sustainable agriculture practices to help” with the expected need to increased food production by 70 percent in 2050. She also noted that “most if not all” U.S. farms have adopted some conservations methods already, adding that these practices have reduced soil erosion by 40 percent and that agriculture is now the leader in wetlands restoration. Merrigan then encouraged “mainstream to explore organic” growing methods, crop rotation, and perennial grains.
Following Merrigan’s keynote, a panel discussed the term “sustainable agriculture,” with varying viewpoints on its meaning and sustainable agriculture in practice. The Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer acknowledged that today “sustainable is an umbrella term,” with organizations who use the term having different visions.
During the afternoon panel on Global Food Safety, Access, and Affordability, connections were made between U.S. food and farm policy and global issues. An audience member from Fresh Farm Markets, a Washington, DC metro area organization, commented that more money should be invested in beginning farmers and ranchers to keep up with consumer demand for local and regional foods. As a speaker on the panel, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) echoed this concern, saying “I want more local farmers to be successful in the U.S.” He also acknowledged that despite consumer demand for such products, it is often challenging to determine the source of produce in mainstream grocery stores.
Wrapping up the last segment of the Summit, during a one-on-one interview Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods with the Food and Drug Administration spoke about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Taylor praised the bill for addressing food safety issues from the last few decades and for bringing together community organizations, industry, and consumers groups. He referred to FSMA as a “paradigm shift,” moving from a focus on reaction to prevention and noted local and state agencies have an important role to play in this shift to ensure protections are met.
With over 50 deliverables mandated by the bill, Taylor said the Agency must choose where to focus its attention first. He said among the primary priorities is setting standards including preventative control standards and produce safety standards. Finally, Taylor noted that due to the very modest increase in the FDA budget, the money to implement the new law may need to come from user fees, an Administration position that was ultimately rejected by Congress during the FSMA debate last year.