May 20, 2011
Introduced by Congressman Sam Farr (D-17th/CA) as “someone who really gets it,” USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan keynoted Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference on May 19. The event attracted food and agriculture writers from around the nation.
The good news, Merrigan explained, is that “there’s more interest now in agriculture than there has been in my entire professional life.” The bad news, she joked, is that “my timing is a little off,” because she reached the “pinnacle of her career” during a “time period when we are not going to have any new resources,” referring to the current budget-cutting climate in DC.
Noting that 74 percent of USDA’s budget goes to nutrition assistance, Merrigan spoke about the Child Nutrition Act, which was reauthorized in December. The law’s Farm to School program is “one of my personal passions,” she said. She has visited some of the 2,000 farm to school projects in the country and is excited about the importance of these programs to the participants, citing a cafeteria where the farmers who supply food regularly dine with the students.
She called USDA’s publicly stated goal of increasing organic agriculture by 25 percent “historic.” She explained the USDA’s commitment to ensuring that every subagency has an organic agenda, and called for research pertinent to agriculture to increase significantly.
Turning to Know You Farmer, Know Your Food, she recalled the first time Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack declared his goal of adding 100,000 new farmers per year. “I took a deep breath when he said that,” she said, due to the challenges of an aging farming population and obstacles to entry by new farmers.
She believes that USDA can support local and regional food systems in three ways: 1) using existing programs and resources to assist sustainable farmers, for example by dedicating some EQIP funding for hoop houses/high tunnels to extend the growing season; 2) undertaking new initiatives, for example by helping smaller-scale livestock producers by creating clear rules to facilitate investment in mobile slaughter, directing producers to programs that can help to fund mobile slaughter, and by creating a national map showing gaps in slaughter capacity; and 3) fostering a “long overdue dialogue about US agriculture.”
Other keynote speakers included Ted Turner, CNN founder and Chairman of the Turner Foundation, Anna Lappe, founder of the Small Planet Institute, Maria Rodale, CEO of Rodale, Inc., Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm, and actress Isabella Rossellini. NSAC’s Executive Director, Susan Prolman, spoke on the hidden cost of cheap food.