Posts Tagged: USDA
The 2008 Farm Bill provided more support for local and regional agriculture. In 2009, under the leadership of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA launched its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, with an eye towards doing just that. The list of initiative goals is lengthy, but include promoting, locally and regionally produced and processed foods; expanding access to affordable and fresh food; and demonstrating the explicit connections between food, agriculture, communities and the environment.
Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a USDA-wide effort. It is not a new department, but rather, an effort that seeks to more effectively connect existing USDA departments and work to strengthen local and regional food systems.
We know that demand for local and regional foods is strong. Per USDA statistics, the number of farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years and there are now more than 7,175 around the country. The community supported agriculture (CSA) model has grown from 2 operations in 1986 to more than 4,000 today. Farm-to-school programs have experienced explosive growth, and are now found in 48 states, and total more than 2,200 (per the USDA, there were two such programs in 1996). There are “branding” efforts touting what is produced “locally” (or regionally, or statewide) in each of the 50 states.
These efforts are important: local and regional food efforts are vital to local economies, as they can often provide farmers with a higher share of the food dollar. Local jobs are supported and created in this manner, as money spent at a local business often continues to circulate within the community, creating a multiplier effect. Food dollars are good dollars.
On February 29th, 2012, the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative launched its new COMPASS. The KYF Compass is a digital guide to USDA resources related to local and regional food systems. The KYF Compass organizes the USDA's work on local and regional food systems into seven thematic areas. The Compass provides tools for navigating to learn more about local and regional food systems and projects. The site enables users to secure the most up-to-date information and create interactive scenarios on a variety of topics relating to local and regional food systems, including:
- What local and regional food systems are
- Farm-to-Institution (including Farm-to-School);
- Stewardship and local food;
- Local meat and poultry;
- Healthy food access;
- Careers in agriculture and food systems;
- Case studies; and
- Interactive mapping tools that enable site users to locate USDA-funded local and regional food systems projects in their area (note to researchers: score!).
One of my interests is food access. The site did not fail to satisfy me in this respect. The food environment atlas tool enabled me to construct a spatial overview of the ability of specific communities to access healthy and fresh foods. In very short order, I was able to construct a rough demographic overview of how my county measured up in terms of residents’ access to grocery stores, the prevalence (and growth) of fast food restaurants, etc. This information could then be compared against other communities (or in my case, adjacent counties). This tool, along with other USDA food access tools, will prove invaluable to site users (including social science researchers). The USDA’s Economic Research Service produces some of the most cutting-edge and valuable research in this area; this site makes this information even more accessible now.
The site also provides ways to find out about consumers can more directly connect with producers, a key part of building and sustaining local and regional food economies.
The COMPASS explicitly links food and agriculture, and shows just how interconnected the food system is with the economy, the health of communities, and the larger environment. President Obama recently said, “Local food systems work for America: when we create opportunities for farmers and ranchers, our entire nation reaps the benefit.” The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative continues to grow, to improve and to support this vital sector of our nation’s food system.
On this Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, it’s nice to sit with a cup of tea and a seed catalog, dreaming about a spring and summer garden. For 2012, I’ve decided to focus on heirloom varieties for my home garden. Spoiler alert for my family: there are packets of heirloom seeds tucked in your Christmas stockings, with extras for Memere and Pepere (who are grandparents and also grand gardeners).
“Heirloom” is an interesting term, and like the word “sustainability”, it means different things to different people. Recently, I read The Heirloom Life Gardener, a book written by Jere and Emilee Gettle. The Gettles are the co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, which publishes a lush and incredibly informative seed catalog and has spun off a variety of gardening-related enterprises across the nation. The Gettles define heirloom seeds as being “nonhybrid and open-pollinated” and as usually having been in circulation for more than fifty years. Some heirloom seed types currently in use could have been found in Thomas Jefferson garden at Monticello. Some appear more recently, during the Great Depression, including the Mortgage Lifter tomato (who couldn’t use one of these in today’s economy?).
While reading the Gettles’ book, I began thinking once again about the relationship between land and the American character. I was inspired to pull some of my favorite books off the shelf and revisit them, to consider the notion of “civic agriculture.”
The term “civic agriculture” - coined by the former Thomas Lyson of Cornell - is used by some to refer to the movement towards locally based agricultural models that tightly link community, social and economic development. Models of civic agriculture include CSAs, farmer’s markets, roadside stands, urban agriculture, community gardens, and farm-to-school/farm-to-institution programs. I also argue that civic agriculture includes school and home gardens…any place where people seek to connect land to the development of community or as an expression of engagement or citizenship.
The civic aspect of agriculture is much older than the current local food movement; it hearkens back to our nation’s founding. The connection between land and democracy has always held real meaning in American culture. Jeffersonian ideals about the civic virtues and value of gardening and agriculture were prevalent and shaped American cultural and political life; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, created in 1862, was called “The People’s Department” by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln once told a group of Wisconsin farmers that as long as Americans knew how to cultivate even the smallest plot of land, that the nation’s citizens would be free from kings and moneylenders, free from oppression of all sorts.
Federal legislation such as the Morrill Act (we will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2012, and I'll be writing about that throughout the New Year) created America’s land-grant institutions, which still have as a primary purpose research and education in support of the nation’s agricultural producers. (Land-grant institutions through their Master Gardener programs also support home and community gardeners). The Homestead Act, also passed in 1862, and linked the cultivation of land to the protection of the Union and the expansion of democracy during the nation’s Civil War. You’ve heard this from me more than once: We were a nation of farmers at origin; we are still a nation of farmers at heart.
We farm, and we garden. Gardening links the myth and the practice of agriculture to one another. In practice, gardening is agriculture on a personal scale; it represents an individual's relationship to a specific piece of land. This is a kind of relationship worth investing in.
As the longest, darkest days of the year are upon us, as you celebrate the best things that family and hearth offer, and as you formulate your goals and hopes for the New Year, I hope that you’ll consider adding another resolution to your list: to embark upon a gardening activity, no matter how small, in 2012. Occupy the possibilities that gardens create at our homes, and in our communities.
Happy Holidays, and a Healthy and Prosperous New Year.
“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”
I collect gardening catalogs. To me, they represent life and productivity and the promise of family, good food and good health. They also provide a link to a simpler, agrarian past that I find comforting and restorative in these unsettling times. In a world where oil gushes unabated into the Gulf of Mexico, violence seems unchecked, compassion towards the less fortunate seems to have evaporated and economic misery abounds, I find gardening catalogs a refuge of optimism. We need fewer bad things in this world and more good gardens.
I’ve spent more time this year sitting in the chair in my garden, thinking about what this small cultivated area says about these times, this world and my life. I’ve resisted buying many seeds this year; like others, the economy gives me jitters. Not that I’m without hope about the economy or the potential of gardens in this current presidential administration. Especially the latter, as the residents of the White House look favorably on sustainable and local food systems. Like our family, the first family has a garden on the front lawn. What’s more affirming than a front yard garden in hard times like these?
In hard times, Americans have always turned to gardening.
The Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II - and the garden efforts of the Great Depression - helped Americans weather hard times. These gardens helped the family budget; improved dietary practices; reduced the food mile and saved fuel; enabled America to export more food to our allies; beautified communities; empowered every citizen to contribute to a national effort; and bridged social, ethnic, class and cultural differences during times when cooperation was vital. Gardens were an expression of solidarity, patriotism, and shared sacrifice. They were everywhere...schools, homes, workplaces, and throughout public spaces all over the nation. No effort was too small. Americans did their bit. And it mattered.
Consider this: In WWI, the Federal Bureau of Education rolled out a national school garden program and funded it with War Department monies. Millions of students gardened at school, at home, and in their communities. A national Liberty Garden (later Victory Garden) program was initiated that called on all Americans to garden for the nation and the world. The success of home gardeners (and careful food preservation) helped the U.S. increase exports to our starving European Allies.
The WWII experience was equally successful. During 1943, some polls reported that 3/5ths of Americans were gardening, including Vice President Henry Wallace, who gardened with his son. That same year, according to some estimates, nearly 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed stateside were grown in school, home and community gardens. In addition to providing much-needed food, gardening helped Americans unite around a positive activity. Gardens gave all Americans a way to provide service to the nation, enabling citizens on the homefront to make significant contributions to the war effort.
Our nation again finds itself in challenging times. School, home and community gardens provide a way to respond positively to this period of uncertainty and change.
Will you do your bit?
Today has been a blur. Woke up early, dressed carefully and ate breakfast while we discussed a morning meeting with Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and pinned down details about our White House visit.
Because it’s late and has been an amazingly long day, I’m mostly going to share about our visit to the White House garden. After attending a meeting at the USDA – and again visiting one my favorite gardens, the People’s Garden – our group walked over to the White House. We took a group picture on the north side of the White House, and then walked over to the south side for a group picture. You can see the White House kitchen garden from there, but it’s not a close view.
After waiting for a bit, we went through security screening. Our instructions were clear. No bags, no pictures, only what you could carry in your pocket. Neither my dress or cardigan had pockets, so I tucked my picture ID, some cash and my business cards in my shoe. (I know, I know). After we passed through security, we entered an atrium type area, where a member of the security staff provided very interesting answers to our questions about White House history, the First Family, the garden, etc. The staff person confirmed that in fact, Mrs. Obama is often in the garden.
Then, Assistant White House chef Sam Kass arrived. Kass came with the Obama family from Chicago to work in Washington, and has been instrumental in the White House kitchen garden project. Clearly, Kass is also driving pieces of the emerging White House food initiatives. He introduced himself to each of us personally, and shook everyone’s hand. We were then escorted outside across the lawn to the garden.
Kass shared a great deal of information about the garden. It’s not a huge garden, but has already produced several hundred pounds of food. Food from this garden is used by the First Family, has been served at official functions, and has also been donated to a local food bank.
Kass allowed us to sample tomatoes from the garden. They were warm from sunshine, and popped with flavor. Many of the plants being cultivated are heirloom varieties, and much of the garden philosophy – and plant material – is driven by one of our founding farmer fathers, Thomas Jefferson. A small plaque in the garden provides a Jefferson quote. Broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, herbs, sweet potatoes…and more, including a fig planted among mint. I rubbed the mint leaves and then smelled my fingers…amazing.
The garden is very well-tended…it has to be. There are many visitors. But…it looks achievable. There is also a weather station, and a bee hive, where honey has been collected.
Kass answered nearly every question we asked him thoroughly and thoughtfully. We were not permitted to take pictures.
I deeply appreciate that the First Family is modeling good health and eating by initiating this effort, and maintaining this kitchen garden. I value that the First Lady has school children come to visit the garden to learn. I love that the food produced is consumed by the family, and that some portion goes to less fortunate families. I love the contributions that Sam Kass, with his dynamic nature and good food ideas, has made to upping the status of gardening in our nation today. Thank you all for taking this important step.
Several blocks away, the USDA People’s Garden sends equally positive messages. Sited on the national mall, this garden is a first. Like the White House garden, it sends important messages to thousands of people each day about gardening, healthy eating, and the right use of civic space. A garden on the national mall…sacred space used for a civic purpose.
A special thanks again to my dear friend and fellow Fellow Roger Doiron, whose work promoting the idea of a White House garden really made this visit possible for us. Today was the culmination of a dream for Roger. It was also his birthday, and we sang the traditional birthday song to him as we stood in the White House garden, together, celebrating this special day.
Tonight, well over a hundred people gathered to learn about and discuss the food system. Each fellow was asked to make brief remarks about their work. Here’s what I shared:
“We were a nation of farmers at formation. We are a nation of farmers still, at heart. This is demonstrated by the garden revolution sweeping the nation. Seven million new gardeners this year. Seven million.
Yesterday, and again this morning, I visited the People’s Garden at the USDA. This garden is on the National Mall. Sacred space. I also visited the First Family’s garden at the White House. Both experiences were profoundly moving.
Last night, President Obama told the nation it is a “season of action.”
He is right. It is a season of action: it is time to move these initiatives out across the nation, to begin a NEW American revolution. A revolution that will create a garden in every school, every home, every community, and every workplace across the nation.”
- Breakfast meeting with Fellows to plan next steps.
- Giving talk on the Garden Revolution at U.S. Botanic Garden.
- Meeting with Christine Flanagan, U.S. Botanic Garden.
- Meeting with one of my favorite WWI historians, Elaine Weiss.
- Go to airport, blog like crazy, board plane, fly back to Oxnard via LAX.
- If no flight delays or issues, arrive home between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m.
Random Observations: During our visit, we saw the White House basketball court/tennis court. We also saw the First Dog, Bo, on the south lawn of the White House. We were far away, but it was clearly Bo.
This morning found me at the National Food Policy Conference. The keynote speaker was Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, and now serving in the Obama administration as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In her brief tenure, Sebelius has been busy framing a response to H1N1 influenza, and dealing with a host of food system issues for the new administration, an administration that is focusing seriously on food safety.
She got right to the point about childhood obesity. Sharing government statistics that medical treatment for all cancers in the U.S. tops $93 billion each year, she pointed out that the medical costs associated with treating obesity DOUBLE that, exceeding $186 billion per year. She indicated that chronic diseases cause 70% of deaths in America, and that their treatment represents 75% of all health care costs. She attributed much of America’s battle with obesity to poor childhood nutrition. Her conclusion? There will be huge benefits to both human health and the economy by addressing both childhood obesity and food safety.
Sebelius promised to “focus relentlessly on prevention,” viewing it as a “great investment.” There will be a national initiative, and American Recovery and Investment funds to support prevention efforts.
Sebelius is working closely on this effort with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They served as governors together (Sebelius in Kansas, Vilsack in Iowa). The idea that DHHS and USDA will be working closely together – along with the Department of Education – is somewhat novel. This administration is emphasizing inter- and intra-agency cooperation to a degree seldom seen previously.
Food safety is a major area of focus for Sebelius. The national food safety workgroup she sits on has identified three core principles:
- Prioritizing food safety, not in response to specific crises, but to anticipate and prevent crises from occurring;
- Building partnerships and casting a wider net, sharing best practices across the nation, and building partnerships across agencies. Specifically, Secretary Sebelius spoke of the DHHS partnering with USDA on food safety, and with the Department of Education playing a role in childhood nutrition education.
- Being proactive.
Secretary Sebelius stated that along with the USDA, the DHHS strongly supports the pending WIC and Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization and the pending Senate food safety bill.
Like yesterday, imports were referenced in terms of food safety. Per Sebelius, 20% of food is imported, and more than 1/3 of produce and ¾ of seafood are imported. She spoke of the need to develop a 21st century food policy that emphasizes safety.
The morning’s big announcement was the launching of www.foodsafety.gov This website represents a significant effort to better serve American consumers by serving as a clearinghouse for all food safety issues. Recall and safety information is provided here, and you may sign up for email updates and feeds. There is a widget that enables individuals and agencies to link the website to their own sites. Mobile phone alerts regarding important food safety information will soon be available.
I visited the site today, and noted something interesting: the collaboration. This site is a joint effort between the White House, the USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, DHHS, National Institutes of Health, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Division. This site is truly a valuable resource, and I urge you to visit it.
Sebelius noted that the “highest mission of any government is keeping its citizens safe.” The government’s new food safety website will help accomplish this.
Around lunchtime, I went with four colleagues over to the USDA for a meeting about the People’s Garden Initiative. While walking by the garden – which looks very different from when I saw it in March, a scant five weeks after it was planted – I saw Bob Snieckus. Bob is a landscape designer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is one of seventeen USDA agencies. I met Bob last March at the People’s Garden Partnership Forum, when he shared design plans. Today, Bob was working in the garden on his lunch hour, doing some volunteer work to perfect what already looked wonderful in preparation for the USDA’s Harvest BBQ, an event for members of Congress that was being held tonight, before the President’s address on health care.
Our group of gardening advocates had a wonderful and productive meeting with USDA staff about national gardening efforts and the USDA’s work in this area. I’ll post tomorrow what I learned about the green and sustainable efforts being undertaken by the USDA. The great work being done there deserves its own blog posting!
- Breakfast meeting with the Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to learn more about federal ag policy and legislation, including the Farm Bill.
- Meeting with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the USDA (gardening is one of three agenda items).
- Visit to the White House Garden. We have learned we will also be given a tour of the kitchen. New restrictions prevent us from taking any bags or cameras, but we believe that the White House staff will provide us with some pictures of our visit.
- Evening reception to present policy ideas to press and policy makers. Bet you can guess what my policy idea is….yes, a national gardening initiative like the WWI and WWII Victory Garden campaigns!
Random observations: High seventies today, scattered sprinkles. Warm and humid, but absolutely lovely this evening. We are staying at an historic hotel off of DuPont Circle, with a tiny lobby. As we crowded into the lobby this evening, preparing to walk to dinner, Madeline Albright and Tom Daschle came through the door, and headed up the flight of narrow stairs for a meeting. We ate dinner tonight at a restaurant called Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an unusual restaurant: it is owned by a collective of family farmers who are committed to serving sustainable food in a sustainable environment (the restaurant is LEEDS certified). The food was excellent, reflecting seasonal availability and a perfect mix of classic American dishes (cornbread and fried green tomatoes were appetizers we shared) and more eclectic offerings. The food is reasonably priced. I had a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and coffee. Six of us shared an enormous slice of red velvet cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
My tablemates were Jim and Rebecca Goodman, Wisconsin dairy farmers; Lisa Kivirist, organic farmer/eco-preneur/writer/innkeeper from Wisconsin; Abigail Rogosheske, Institute of Ag and Trade Policy, Minnesota; Zoe Bradbury, young farmer/writer from Langlois, Oregon (and her husband, Danny, who is from Ventura!); and Roger Doiron, gardening hero and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International. Roger’s influence has made the White House visit possible. Thanks, Roger!