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Merrigan addresses ‘food revolution,’ implications
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (May 13, 2014) — Former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan thought Time Magazine’s selection of her as one of the most influential people in the world in 2010 was a prank.
She said she told her staff not to return the call.
When Merrigan realized it was the real deal, she acquiesced and chalked up the recognition to being part of something bigger than herself.
“In part, I was the embodiment of what’s going on in this country, and that’s a revolution about food,” Merrigan told an audience of about 50 people at the University of Maryland on May 2 during a presentation on changes in food policy in and outside of the nation’s capital.
The presentation was part of an ongoing seminar series featuring distinguished women scholars at the university. Merrigan, who served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2013, recently became the executive director of the Sustainability Institute at George Washington University.
Merrigan said that, while most of her career has been focused on Washington, she thinks the most important changes regarding food and agriculture begin in the countryside “with bright innovations and communities coming together.”
She went on to depict several examples of how individuals, cities, states and regions have impacted national food policy — concluding that they’ll have to be even more determined in their efforts as the Washington, D.C. decision-making machine continues to slow in its efficiency.
Merrigan even added that the United States may have narrowly passed its last farm bill this past year, predicting that the stalemates that made the process so halting may make it impossible to complete in the future.
“We are in uncharted territory. What does it mean if we don’t have an omnibus farm bill? Good and bad things,” Merrigan said, adding that what might replace the big fight would be small time-consuming fights that would result in even less progress.
Merrigan, who created the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative to support local food systems, admitted to the audience that making smart decisions about food has become increasingly difficult despite — or because of — the sheer number of choices available.
She said industry research has shown that putting additional information on a label — whether that information is pertinent or just tells you that the product was “harvested under a full moon” — results in a positive consumer response.
Therefore, we have entered an era of labeling overload in which consumers aren’t sure which certifications matter most, she said.
The USDA also plays a role in designating the health factor of foods via its dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years. What began as a food pyramid has morphed into a “MyPlate” that is largely devoted to vegetables, though Merrigan said the food pyramid is still available for those who find it helpful.
Merrigan said the next guidelines, due out in 2015, might be expanded to help consumers consider how their food choices impact the planet and could be more sustainable.
Of all the movements contained in today’s “food revolution,” Merrigan said she is most heartened by the growth of farm-to-school programs in the country.
She worked with First Lady Michelle Obama to craft the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act while in office, which revamped school lunches to make them more healthful and promote the sourcing of local ingredients.
Merrigan cited research that students who participated in garden-based learning programs performed better in school, were more environmentally aware and were more willing to try fruits and vegetables beyond what they had seen growing in a garden just by being introduced to the process.
“That has a long-lasting impact as people reconnect and start bringing agriculture back into their education,” Merrigan said. “Who knows where that leads?”
Merrigan cited the USDA’s continual work in her areas of interest, such as work to improve the nutrition of low-income individuals and to address the need for additional farm workers.
As the government’s dietary guidelines point out that we should eat more fruits and vegetables, Merrigan thinks food policies should follow that encourage family farms to grow more produce alongside their current crops (a practice that has grown with the local foods movement in much of the Delmarva region).