There were many moving parts in the week-long launch of the USDA-wide initiative Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2). In this, my first blog entry, I review the week’s events. It was, in short, a whirlwind.
We gave a theme to each day of the week, which helped organize our announcements and reveal the major components of KYF2. Throughout, Secretary Vilsack and members of the Subcabinet were all on message: not every family needs an accountant, not every family needs a lawyer, but every family needs a farmer.
Sorry about the length of this posting – but I have a lot to tell you!
Creation of Rural Wealth
On Monday, September 14, our theme was creation of rural wealth. Local and regional food systems can help revitalize rural communities, oftentimes by more efficiently linking with urban consumers. Assuming such systems are desirable, it is natural to ask why they are almost non-existent. What structural barriers impede development of local and regional food systems and what can be done about them? Some of the challenges include lack of local slaughter, storage, and processing capacity, and a lack of cooperatives to help small farmers aggregate product. To begin to address structural barriers, we made a series of announcements:
Local slaughter capacity: The 2008 Farm Bill provided many boosts for local and regional food systems, not least among them a directive for USDA to establish a system whereby small slaughter facilities can gain Federal approval for shipment of meat across state lines. While that may seem counter-intuitive to local, at first glance, consider a small plant in Wisconsin near the border of Minnesota. Perhaps the “foodshed” (more on this term in a future blog) actually crosses state lines, but the meat from the plant cannot since it is only state-inspected. Strengthening the capacity of these small plants will also help specialty markets, such as slaughter of grass-fed beef. The interstate meat proposed rule was announced and put on display on OMB’s website. While this is just the first step in the rulemaking process, I expect we will be able to move quickly on this issue which is good for KYF2.
Local processing capacity: We also advertised the availability of funds under our Value Added Producer Grants program. This program supports farmers looking to add value to their product through processing, such as by turning milk into yogurt. If you’re an interested farmer, keep in mind that simply by marketing a product locally you can qualify for a Value Added Producer Grant. For more information click here.
Formation of Cooperatives: USDA announced $4.8 million in grants under the Rural Cooperative Development Program, which can be used to support the creation or operations of a cooperative. The Ohio State University Foundation, for example, will use some of their $200,000 grant toward technical assistance to farmers market managers around the state who came together to form a cooperative.
KYF2 Task Force: Maybe our most important announcement was that we have a USDA KYF2 interagency task force, which has been hard at work since May. Every agency at USDA is represented. This is important because the way government programs and people work in silos can, itself, prove to be a structural barrier to coordinating resources and joint problem solving. I have the privilege of chairing this KYF2 Task Force, which meets every two weeks. Over time I will blog about our various Task Force members, all of whom are enthusiastic and dedicated.
Our theme Tuesday, September 16 was Farm-to-Institution. As many of you well know, there is great interest in farm-to-school, but we want to think beyond that. Farm-to-healthcare and farm-to-college are among the institutional linkages that need to be encouraged because such relationships will help build local markets for farmers and ranchers.
To this end, we made three important announcements.
Local Procurement: In the 2008 farm bill, Congress directed the USDA to do a better job assisting schools to procure food locally with USDA resources. Last week we announced our intention to follow-through on this mandate and provide $50 million for schools to buy local. In future blogs, I will provide more detail on this exciting development.
Fresh in Schools: When I found out that local apples were rejected as USDA school lunch purchases because they were sliced and bagged – and therefore processed by a technical definition, I asked my USDA colleagues in FNS and our Office of General Council to reflect on the spirit as well as the letter of the law. The result: a broadened definition of what constitutes fresh for school nutrition programs. In future blogs, I will provide more details on this effort but for now, understand it means healthier school meals.
Farm-to-School Tactical Teams: The number of hoops a school’s nutritionist needs to jump through in order to get quality fresh, local food in their kids’ stomachs is surprising. To start, schools and farms are on entirely different schedules, with most of the prime growing months coming when kids are done for the summer. Stretched school budgets and simply not knowing how to reach local farmers makes it all the more difficult. In order to overcome these barriers, the USDA will be deploying Tactical Teams in various school districts in order to understand what works for farm-to-school programs, and then share these solutions around the country.
Wednesday our theme was healthy eating. How can we use local and regional food systems to improve the American diet? To begin to address this question, we made two announcements. First, we released our Community Food Projects grants. Many of these grants are aimed at providing greater food access in low income communities – many of which are food deserts. For example, in Portland, Oregon, nearly $300,000 will be awarded to Janus Youth Programs to establish community gardens in public housing as well as to foster local food-related entrepreneurialism and issue awareness. At the same time, we focused inward and took a good look at our own USDA cafeteria. Are there ways we can better incorporate the nutrition advice we provide the American public into what we do in our own building? To this end, we banned fried foods for the day, substituted fresh fruit for donuts, and posted signs on the soda machines asking people to consider water, juice and milk. All entries had calorie and other nutrition facts posted. And best of all, we had so much locally grown food! Sam Kass, assistant White House Chef and food policy initiative coordinator came and prepared a locally grown salad selection for USDA employees. We all felt special, dining in the mode of the First Family! While this was a pilot activity, we plan on working, in a comprehensive way, on improving our food practices here at Headquarters.
Thursday was a blast. I joined the First Lady and Secretary Vilsack at the opening of the Vermont Avenue Farmer’s Market, just a couple of blocks from the White House. The rain could not dampen our spirits. A huge and enthusiastic crowd formed and cheered our First Lady who delivered inspirational remarks and described how important it is to support farmers. Secretary Vilsack announced our Farmers Market Promotion grants – 86 of them across 37 states. And if you think farmers markets are just for yuppies, consider this: 18% of the USDA grant dollars announced are to support establishment of electronic benefit transfer capacity at farmers markets so that families receiving SNAP benefits can participate. Some foundations (Wholesome Wave, Fair Food Network) are working to double SNAP benefits at our markets so that every one dollar spent at the market yields $2 worth of food. So far, only a few markets are receiving this great boost, but what a great idea!
As well on Thursday, we announced what will be a multi-year Agricultural Research Service project to develop strategies to build local food systems along the northeast corridor. Teams from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Economic Research Service will analyze and model the region’s food chain in order better understand local food production and, ultimately, increase food security.
Ag is Back – join the conversation
The Secretary kicked off our week with a posting on YouTube inviting people to share their ideas and stories. Our subcabinet was also on the road all week, discussing KF2. For example, Ann Wright, our acting Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs, travelled to Illinois and spoke at the Chef’s Collaborative in Chicago and then the National Small Farms Conference in Springfield. And today I hosted the USDA’s first live Facebook chat on KYF2. I’m looking forward to your help in shaping USDA’s KYF2 agenda.
Kathleen A. Merrigan, Deputy Secretary