NYC Food Policy Center Interview with Kathleen Merrigan

by Cameron St. Germain

By Cameron St. Germain

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan is the Executive Director of Sustainability at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C, where she leads the GW Sustainability Collaborative and the GW Food Institute. She is also a professor at GWU, sharing her knowledge about sustainability with her students.

From 2009 to 2013, Dr. Merrigan served as the U.S. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In this position, she worked on a variety of projects, including creating the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative and working with then First Lady Michelle Obama’s on the “Let’s Move” campaign. Prior to her work with the Obama Administration, Dr. Merrigan was the director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University.

She has devoted her political life to fighting for sustainable agricultural policy, and played an integral role in writing the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. In 2010, Dr. Merrigan was chosen as one of the hundred most influential people in the World by Time Magazine. In 2012, she was awarded a James Beard Leadership Award for her work with the USDA and for advocating on behalf of those in the agricultural field.

The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Merrigan on a number of topics ranging from her work on the “Let’s Move Campaign” to the food labels that inundate our marketplaces.

New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): On the Hill, you are known as the “Mother of Organic” and in 2010, you were named one of the top 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. In reflecting on this title and award, what is your proudest “food” accomplishment to date?

Kathleen Kerrigan (KM): It’s probably not what people would think. I think I’m most proud of opening the USDA’s door wider to bring in new constituents for the programs that the USDA has. Abraham Lincoln named it “The Peoples’ Department” when it was established long ago. Over the years, it’s become a very big bureaucracy and is very much a black box for people, many of whom could potentially benefit from the resources that the the USDA has. I am really proud of the campaign that I ran to try to help people understand what the USDA does and how it can help them.

FPC: The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program faced harsh criticisms from Big Ag. Can you explain the program and why their was opposition from Big Ag? How did you respond to the criticism? How do you suggest individuals fighting for further agricultural reform today respond to opposition from Big Ag?

KM: It is important to note that we strategically called it an initiative and not a program. I wanted local and regional food and agriculture to be a part of every program and in every agency within the USDA. I didn’t want it housed within one program, in one office, or within one agency. I wanted local, regional, and organic agriculture, to be within the mission; whether you’re a Farm Service Agency (FSA), loan officer giving out loans, a food safety inspector trying to figure out new food safety rules, a natural conservation service employee trying to figure out what to cost share with farmers in terms of conservation practice, or in the research agency and trying to figure out what grants to fund. Because of this, we were very deliberate in calling it an initiative. It also helped to protect the initiative when some people wanted to kill it. There was an amendment in the House to get rid of it, but since I didn’t have anyone working full time on the initiative and it wasn’t in a program or an office, it was more of a cultural change and it was hard to kill. Actually, it was impossible to kill.

I think that big interest groups were worried that it was camel’s nose under the tent. They believed that once you start putting money towards local and regional markets, it will take away money from the core responsibilities of the USDA. And in retort, I always like to give the example of EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) under the Natural Resources Conservation Service. We helped cost share hoop houses. Hoop houses are low-cost, seasonal high tunnels on farms and are a kind of temporary greenhouse. They allow farmers to get their crops in earlier in the season and keep them later, so to help simulate local markets. It’s very appealing for very small scale farmers who tend to be involved in local more than not. From this, there was a lot of pushback. “Oh my God, you’re intruding on the EQIP-world and we’re not going to have enough money left for methane digesters for large dairy farms” and what have you. Well, in the first year we spent 13 million dollars on seasonal high tunnel cost sharing, which sounds like a lot of money until you realize the overall program cost is a billion dollars.

So, we were able to have so many farmers across the countryside get their first piece of money from USDA to help them build local markets for very small costs. I think some of the backlash was irrational from the big guys. In order to fight for further agricultural reform, we need to learn how to engage in dialogue in a more useful way. Too often people start by saying “the food system is broken” and that “farmers need to do this, that, or the other thing” and that’s just a show stopper because the people that you need to sit at the table to think about the future of the food system ends up being the people that you just insulted. Therefore, this method is not a good way of creating dialogue. I think people need to be more attentive to their words and better overall communicators.

FPC: When you were growing up, your parents played a role in protesting anticipated fast food restaurants trying to establish locations in your hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts. You have been quoted as saying “[My mother] had a slogan: Stop Hamburger Highway!” Are your parents the ones who inspired your interest in learning about agriculture and food policy? Was there a specific trigger or moment that piqued your interest in the topic?

KM: I wouldn’t say it was that. That was sort of a political awakening in how to get local and engaged in politics. My mom was a force to be reckoned with.

The trigger was that I ran a state senate race right out of college and then went into the statehouse in Boston to work for my state senator. In my first year, there were really bad groundwater contamination problems in Whately, Massachusetts. It occured in a small farming community. The farmers were growing cigar wrapped tobacco and potatoes. It was the chemicals that were used in those two crops that contaminated the farmers’ wells and they were told that they couldn’t not only drink the water, but shouldn’t even shower in it. I saw the destruction of a rural community over that issue and as a result, the state had to invest money to build a public water system in that town, which is not inexpensive. The state senator went on. I was proud to be involved with setting up the UMASS Amherst IPM (Integrated Pest Management), which is still one of the best in the world.

Out of that, I learned the importance of asking questions, such as where do the records on what pesticides have been used over time and how do we overlay that data with where the underground aquifers are? These questions were novel and didn’t have answers. So, I knew I wanted to be involved in policy from the time I left college and I could have gone in a lot of different directions, but that experience really turned me on to agriculture and that is what I have stuck with ever since.

FPC: A recent study from the University of Delaware found that inundation of food labeling in grocery stores can cause a miscommunication of information. For example, individuals may think that food labeled “Fair Trade” is healthier, which isn’t necessarily true. How do you believe we can go about correcting this misunderstanding among consumers?

KM: I do agree with with the statement that there is a proliferation of labels in the marketplace and its becoming confusing and consumers are overdosing.

That said, I’m a really, really strong proponent of transparency and I wouldn’t want the government to close down labeling options in anyway as long as they are truthful and that there is integrity to the label, meaning there’s meaningful information being conveyed and it can be verified. I think that over time, consumers, by voting with their dollars, will determine the winners and losers in the labeling game. On the other hand, the “natural” label is a different monster. I’m aware of numerous efforts legislatively over the last thirty years to have some sort of standard of what “natural” is. It has never happened and I don’t think it will happen.

As my students who suffer my public policy courses understand, there are all these analyses that have to go forward to get a rule. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis, a regulatory flexibility analysis, a small-business analysis among others. Generally if an industry is completely built up and they have been using that natural terminology for thirty years or whatever, it is very difficult to change especially if it is not imperiling public health. “Natural” is more of a want to know, as opposed to a need to know, label. I just can’t imagine that if Congress passed a law, and if a regulatory agency actually wrote a rule or in the absence of a law decided to write a rule under other kinds of authorities, that we’d see anything for very long. It would all be reduced to battles in the courts.

So I think at this point, people need to understand that “natural” doesn’t really mean anything and look at other labeling claims.

FPC: You were a “key architect of [the former] First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.” As a group, how did you go about constructing such a large program and what parts did you particularly play an integral role in?  Did you anticipate the backlash?

KM: I always anticipate backlash given my history so that’s the easy part of the question. The White House, through the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), convened a series of meetings with a group of us that was a precursor to “Let’s Move.”

We brought in outside experts to present and we read a lot of reports. We did a lot of arguing with people from a lot of different parts of the government, so it wasn’t just the USDA and Health and Human Services. I had a seat at that round table and was able to comment on iterations of the draft paper that became the document from which “Let’s Move” was birthed.

Early on, there was some discussion on whether to have the First Lady focus on obesity or hunger and one of my loudest chants was that unfortunately they stem from the same root cause–a lack of access to healthy food. I didn’t want them to make the Hobson’s choice. If you look at that precursor document, you’ll see references to “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” so part of it was trying to figure out how those puzzle pieces fit together and particularly around access.

Another area that I was involved in was trying to debunk the notion that increasing fruits in vegetables in our public nutrition programs is too expensive to do–it’s not. If you want to have raspberries in January, that is going to be very expensive. However, if you want to eat  food that’s in season, then it can be generally doable.

The Economic Research Service at the USDA does a lot of studies and they put out pretty regular report on the per cost equivalent for a cup of various vegetables and fruits. That research is all publicly available and illustrates that it can be affordable to eat the half of plate that is recommended. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone can because they might not have access to supermarkets or the ability to shop multiple times with perishable crops. They might also not have the time or the expertise to prepare the food. However, in our SNAP program, or the food stamp program, there’s a thing called the Thrifty Food Plan. That determines how recipients of SNAP can afford to eat as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises, and the answer is yes. It’s not easy and there are a lot of problems, but by just starting out of the gate and saying “oh, fruits and vegetables are too expensive” is wrong and doesn’t open the doors to a lot of innovation and policy initiatives that could really make a difference in people’s health.

FPC: The USDA has a lengthy definition about sustainability. How does this impact consumer choice, farming, agricultural policy and more largely the food system as a whole?

KM: It’s probably a definition I wrote back in the 1990 Farm Bill which has been untouched over time. It’s the only definition at the federal level, so I’m guilty of that definition.

Many organizations have differing definitions; it can really all be boiled down to three legs of the stool. It has to be (1) socially sustainable, (2) economically sustainable and (3) environmentally sustainable. So I don’t care if it is online or a twelve page document, it really does boil down to these three aspects. The real challenge these days is taking a look at the 17 sustainability goals (SDGs) that the United Nations process brought us in 2015 and figuring out how to achieve those goals by 2030, which is the deadline. There are a million different subparts to them and it is very complicated and we’re all trying to grasp what it is we need to do. We’ve reorganized the Introduction to Sustainability course at GW to focus on the SDGs because we don’t believe our students should be graduating and not knowing what they are.

FPC: You said “women need to play a larger role” in the world of agriculture and “given equal access to resources, education and leadership positions, global food production would increase by 30 percent.” How can communities as well as local, state and federal governments encourage supporting women farmers globally?

KM: Well, one current issue that’s at play here in the U.S. is the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, which is a U.S. program that helps provide school lunches in developing nations. In many African countries, the program has helped a higher amount of girls get to school. The current President hasn’t been supportive of the program. If we got rid of the program, instead of moving forward, it would really be moving backwards. We, as a country, participate in a lot of international forums not just in the United Nations, and should use the power that we have to shine a light on women farmers globally.

We also have opportunities to support NGOs that are doing important work. Jose Andres is one of our famous chefs here in DC and someone who teaches with me. We’re great friends and he’s part of my advisory council for the Sustainability Collaborative. He’s down in Puerto Rico now and has served over 3 million meals. Another one of his causes is clean cookstoves, which we had an event for last January.

The amount of change that could potentially happen from getting creative in terms of the ways to share better technology across the globe is great. Some women are spending huge amounts of their day either going for firewood or fuel. They walk miles and are very vulnerable to rape and other kinds of abuse. Apart from this, they are then over a hot fire, ingesting really unhealthy smoke. This shows that there are all kinds of things we can do to help people in other countries.

FPC: How can organic agriculture contribute to global food security?

KM: It’s shown to be very good at carbon sequestration. The building of organic matter in the soil that comes from healthy crop rotations, regular use of cover crops and not using synthetic pesticides has really enriched the soil so it’s healthier and it’s also better for the climate.

Organic agriculture can use less water because of the healthy soil. So the healthy soil is a big part of what organic can do. It is also a very resilient because it is not monoculture and that can be very important when we have extreme weather events and all this sort things that are challenging.

However, for the most part, it is hard to practice because it’s complicated. People think it’s simple and that it’s just going without, but it’s more than that and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to bring more organic expertise to developing countries where they don’t have access to high end expensive inputs and machinery. In those countries, there may be ways that organic methods can help.

FPC: You are a “long-term fan of the United Nations Food Agriculture Organization (FAO).” How does the FAO influence your work in your current role as the Current Executive Director of Sustainability at The George Washington University? How do you believe sustainability departments can better model such an organization on campuses across the United States?

KM: The FAO is a great organization for both faculty and student researchers because it began as an organization that collects statistics. Rather than every single country in the world deciding how they want to collect statistics and do it their way and when they want, there is some effort to standardize that across the globe so that we can understand what’s going on. The FAO is the best resource for that information outside of your own country. We have a Census of Agriculture that we do in the U.S. every five years, and a lot of that rolls up into the FAO database. The FAO website is a very great resource for people.

These days, I’m not doing anything with FAO per say, but I’m pretty involved with the United Nations environment program with some former colleagues of FAO and we are working on a thing called TEEB. It’s an effort and right now we’ve had 167 scholars across the globe working together on trying to build consensus regarding an appropriate framework to use around analyzing food production and capturing the externalities, both positive and negative. We want to put a value on these externalities so that we have a true sense of what food costs.

FPC: In a promotional video for the Food Policy Leadership Institute, you said “literacy has not kept pace with interest” with food and agriculture policy. How can individuals interested in the food system further their knowledge? How do we engage and educate those who aren’t interested?

KM: We have a new campaign on Twitter, among other things, called #farmfactfriday. We are doing it with the Farmers Restaurant Group and National Farmers Union to put out basic literacy factoids for people. Sometimes you can hyperlink, like last year was the use of drones and livestock agriculture, and then if you and to learn more you hit the link and it goes to our food institute website where one our student fellows wrote a longer piece on one of these drones. So, how do you learn more? I guess people have different levels of interest. I have this Food Policy Leadership Institute. People who want to get really into policy can come study with me at the graduate level.

FPC: What was your breakfast this morning?

KM: It was a long time ago… I had scrambled eggs and tea. I get up every morning and make my son breakfast. He eats a big breakfast because he’s a wrestler and I tend to eat his leftovers.

FPC: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?

KM: Too much! It’s a problem with Americans and the size of our refrigerators is huge compared to other parts of the world. This is particularly relevant to those of us talking about food waste. Part of the largest share of wasted food comes from the individual consumer level. At the individual consumer level, we throw out a lot in our refrigerator that has gone bad. It’s is because these big ice boxes hold huge amounts of food and we’ve just gotten into that practice where you go to the grocery store once a week. You buy so much and you stuff it in there. I think the point I want to make is that I need to do better at practicing what I preach. In the pantry, one thing that I have more than most people would be a lot of different spices and a lot of different kinds of mixes too. I love Chef Paul Prudhomme, who is now deceased, from down in Louisiana. He was a famous chef for a lot of years. He was huge and lost a lot of weight, which he had to for health reasons, and he came out with this box set of spices that are healthy and taste delicious. When chosen correctly, spices can be fun and steer us away from too much salt in food and make it more exciting. The secret stuff can be really fun!

FPC: Your favorite “junk food”?

KM: I really like red licorice.

FPC: Your worst summer job?

KM: I never had a bad summer job.

FPC: As a child, you wanted to be?

KM: When I was really little I wanted to be a professional baseball player, which is odd because I am not very athletic. However, I always wanted to go into politics from early on.


Grew up in: Greenfield, Massachusetts

Where you live: Chevy Chase, Maryland

Background and Education: BA Williams College, MA from Lyndon Baines Johnson school of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One word you would use to describe our food system: Complex

Food policy hero: Bill Gillon- he works for the Cotton Board in Tennessee, but he was my office mate when I wrote the organic law. He’s someone who comes from conventional ag, but has always been the most open-minded person I know and tries to bridge different worlds in a very constructive way.

Favorite food: Roasted parsnips

Social media and food policy website(s) you must follow/read: I look at so much stuff. For policy, I think people should be looking at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website, newsletter and feed.

Favorite food policy book: No question- The Third Plate by Dan Barber. He advocates a way of life based around eating farm driven cuisine. His book is a vision of how things could be. It’s beautifully written and it’s the core textbook in my class, The Sustainable Plate. I highly recommend it.

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