US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture at NCSU

Earlier this week, US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Kathleen Merrigan kicked off her nationwide ”Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” College Tour here in North Carolina. The Center For Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) hosted Merrigan for free lectures at N.C. A&T State University and at N.C. State University February 9. As a national leader in the sustainable food movement, Merrigan spoke at NCSU’s Danbey Hall to an auditorium full of students, professors, farmers, chefs, and concerned citizens. Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS) staff had a moment to chat with the Deputy Secretary as she toured the NCSU Campus Farmers’ Market with CEFS. Farm Manager Steven Horton and Young Farmer Training Program Coordinator Mitra Sticklen had a chance to meet Dr. Merrigan and explain a bit about IFFS internship and training programs. She wished us the best of luck with these programs and suggested that there should be more programs like ours across the nation. Just a few hours later, many IFFS team members attended her NCSU lecture.

Merrigan’s approach toward whole-system food security is exciting because it connects all the pieces of our broken food system. She explained that the linked problems of diabetes, obesity, food insecurity, and malnutrition could be solved with combined efforts to practice healthy eating habits from an early age and create more local farms. Building a culture of healthy communities who eat fresh food within a vibrant local economy is the basic idea for Merrigan’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign.  Her approach is to promote regional food systems by creating equal access to healthy food and new jobs, and focusing on young leaders to transform the food system.

In a nod to other successful programs at a national level, Merrigan highlighted the first anniversary of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative to fight childhood obesity and promote healthier lifestyles. Merrigan applauded Michelle Obama for bringing children’s diets in school and at home into the national conversation.

A USDA Press Release from the NCSU lecture quotes Merrigan as saying:

“The Obama Administration believes this is a historic opportunity to help win the future by laying a new foundation for economic growth, creating jobs and building and revitalizing critical infrastructure here in North Carolina and in rural communities across America through supporting and establishing local and regional food systems as an economic development strategy to keep wealth in local communities,”

In addition to offering many options for USDA internships for students in the audience, Merrigan also directed young leaders to apply for FoodCorps , a “yearlong term of public service in school food systems. Once stationed, FoodCorps members will build Farm to School supply chains, expand food system and nutrition education programs, and build and tend school food gardens.”  North Carolina is one of ten states chosen for 2011 FoodCorps through a partnership between CEFS and 4-H, and Merrigan urged audience members to join this year of service for North Carolina’s school food system.

The USDA team engaged the audience with interactive remotes, and Merrigan quizzed attendees about everything from nutrition education to profitable crops in North Carolina. Here are a few interesting statistics from her presentation:

  • 73% of the USDA budget is for nutrition education
  • 43.4 million Americans (that’s 1 in 7) are on SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps
  • 1 in 4 SNAP dollars are redeemed at Walmart
  • 45% of the food dollars spent in Detroit are SNAP dollars

Yikes! You can see from these numbers that our food system is in serious trouble, and we need some serious game-changers to face these challenges.

Merrigan briefly fielded a few questions about local crop sources in the military (see more on this blog), and a question from IFFS Farm Educator Sun Butler about organic farmers and a recent USDA recent decision to deregulate genetically engineered crops. While her response to this question was short and opened the doors for further discussion, she pointed to a strategy of “coexistance” between farmers who use organic methods and farmers who use genetically engineered crops. Merrigan closed simply by saying,

“Not every family needs an accountant. Not every family needs a laywer. But every family needs a farmer…Do you know yours?”