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Friday, September 7, 2012

"Growing Communities through Local Foods"

Today at lunch time I was lucky enough to see a talk given by Kathleen Merrigan entitled "Growing Communities through Local Foods" sponsored by the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies. Deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the author of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, Merrigan is widely regarded as the moving force behind the development of federal organic standards. She is an outspoken advocate of moving federal farm policies toward conservation and sustainable land use. After receiving a Fulbright fellowship to study pesticide use in Poland, Merrigan joined the staff of the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in 1987. She then earned her Ph.D. at MIT, where she also worked as a senior analyst for the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. From there she was appointed to the National Organics Standards Board. In 1999, Bill Clinton appointed Merrigan to head the USDA’s Marketing Service. At the end of Clinton’s presidency, Merrigan moved to Tufts University, where she directed the Center on Agriculture, Food, and Environment.  In 2009, President Obama tapped her to become the deputy secretary of agriculture.

Interesting things about the talk:

  • She said that many small scale farmers are aging, and work out in the fields well into their 80s. She said it is difficult to get young people interested in farming. One student raised her hand and said that so many people nowadays are focused on money and prestige, and that young people are not likely to see farming as a real job. She said that she found it promising that many college programs in agriculture are seeing increased enrollments in recent years.
  • Merrigan emphasized the importance of buying local foods and conveyed the great possible increase in the livelihood of a local economy based on just each person spending $10 per week on local products. 
  • She put up a picture of a 12 pack case of soda and a pile of fresh vegetables and asked which one was more expensive. Everyone said the vegetables. She said in fact the soda was more expensive, and that a lot of people don't buy vegetables or don't t want to put vegetables in school lunches because they think they are took expensive. She said in fact that a lot of the time they are actually affordable. My friend Jessika afterwards said that not all vegetables are created equal, and we were sure 12 cans of soda would be cheaper than 12 beautiful, huge, locally grown, organic heirloom tomatoes.
  • She showed a diagram of a plate with an increased portion of vegetables. She said that some people say that the country does not produce enough vegetables for Americans to eat that increased amount, but in fact she thought that the amount was achievable to grow and would help small scale farmers. 
It was an interesting talk! Afterwards there were some questions about organic standards (which she thought were tougher than many other countries), and genetically modified foods (she joked she was happy she didn't work at the FDA and didn't have to deal with those issues as much). 

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