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USDA launches "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative

By Bill Daley and Monica Eng | The Chicago Tribune

Helping communities lift themselves by the economic roots is the thrust behind a new federal initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” Details of the multi-million-dollar program, announced Tuesday in Washington by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, were outlined later in the afternoon here in Chicago at the Chefs Collaborative National Summit.

“We believe everyone needs a farmer,’’ said Ann Wright, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that includes the White House, too. Wright said creation of a farmer’s market to be located outside the presidential mansion would be announced Thursday.

“It’s a real symbol to the rest of the country that we care and are aware of what’s going on,’’ Wright said.

The undersecretary made her remarks at Kendall College before an audience of roughly 165 chefs, farmers, others in the food industry and journalists meeting for a two-day conference on the theme, “Bringing Sustainability to the Table.” The event is sponsored by the Boston-based Chefs Collaborative, a leading non-profit network of chefs fostering a sustainable food system.

“Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” is designed to support local and regional food systems, strengthening agriculture and thus triggering economic opportunities on a community level. Vilsack, in a video posted on You Tube, said the initiative is designed to start a national conversation on where food comes from and how it ends up on the plate.

 Wright wasn’t certain how much money would ultimately be earmarked for “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” but a USDA press release said $65 million in funding would be announced this week. Wright said a Web site would be launched Friday that would list more details and tell how grant money and federal support can be solicited. No Web site address was given.

Many of these grants were available before, she said, but the Web site will offer “one-stop shopping.”

In an interview after her summit appearance, Wright stressed the importance of one “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative: A farm-school program that would make it easier for schools to use federal dollars from the 2008 Farm Bill to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. She said there’s a clause in existing legislation requiring all fruits and vegetables to be unprocessed. Wright said the USDA wanted to clarify what that means, allowing for minimal steps like freezing locally-grown produce for use by schools in the winter. Some $50 million in federal dollars are available to school systems to buy fruit and vegetables through their state governments, she added.

According to the USDA, other initiatives include: Allow select state-inspected operations to ship meat and poultry across state lines, widening the market for small farm operations; dispatching “action teams” to several states to work on infrastructures to build stronger local and regional food systems; offering $4.4 million in grants to assist 23 local business cooperatives in 19 states.

Bolstering local communities by tying consumers and chefs more closely with local farmers was not solely a USDA theme at the Chefs Collaborative session Tuesday. Chef Rick Bayless, host of television’s “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” and co-owner of three high-profile Mexican restaurants in Chicago stressed the importance of small, sustainable, family-owned businesses to the lifeblood of a town or a neighborhood.

“We need to shout from the top of mountains and buildings about community and sustainability,’’ he said. “The food community will promote the necessary climate for the community to create local flavor.”

At Tuesday’s summit sessions, attendees got a tutorial on butchering a pig, sourcing out local seafood and learning about artisan beer, wine and spirits.

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