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Top USDA official gets serious about local/regional food systems

By Tom Philpott |

merriganHope and fresh produce: Kathleen Merrigan

With the climate bill gutted by Big Ag and stalled in the Senate, with health-care reform on the verge of collapse, prospects for real change in national politics are looking grim. Well, here’s some hope from what’s traditionally one of the executive branch’s most retrograde agencies: the USDA.

USDA deputy secretary, Kathleen Merrigan recently released a memo (PDF) called “Harnessing USDA Rural Development Programs to Build Local and Regional Food Systems.” (Below right, see a characteristic fragment.)

Now, this is no revolutionary document. It commits no new funds, lays out no bold new plans. USDA officials have no power to do those things; their funding and broad policy mandate is essentially laid out in the farm bill.

A characteristic bit of the Merrigan memo.

But the memo does signal the intention to execute policy in a smart and progressive way. And it comes from an official with the clout to make it happen. The deputy secretary position is traditionally a powerful one within USDA—the person who cracks the whip and gets the agency’s vast population of bureaucrats dancing to the same tune.

During the Bush administration, a veteran industrial corn man named Chuck Conner held the post. Kathleen Merrigan stands in a sharp contrast to Conner, who spent his pre-Bush Admin days doing stuff like trying to force Mexican consumers to experience the wonders of high-fructose corn syrup.

Merrigan, for her part, is a longtime champion of organic agriculture. Before joining USDA, she held a post as a academic, directing the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts.

In her food-systems memo, Merrigan lays out an agenda for how existing USDA programs could be used to bolster emerging local and regional food networks.

On Obama Foodorma, the well-connectted blogger Eddie Gehman Kohan claims that Merrigan and her boss, USDA chief Tom Vilsack, has been working closely with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “food policy team.” Her what? According to Gehman Kohan, Ms. Obama does indeed have such a team, “led by White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, and also includes Senior Adviser Jocelyn Frye and Melody Barnes.”

In Gehman Kohan’s reading, the Merrigan memo reflects a quiet but powerful push from the East Wing of the White House—Michelle Obama’s domain—to transform a half century of failed policies at USDA. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly represents a major step forward from the age when industrial corn men led the agency.

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