USDA Steering Organics to the Center of the Plate

By Kurt Michael Friese

Among the many unique aspects of living in Iowa is our first-in-the-nation caucus system. Three years ago this week, on an outing with other campaign volunteers to plant trees for Earth Day, I had the honor of meeting a skinny, unknown, African-American, freshman senator from Illinois who had the audacity to believe he could be elected president. I had about three minutes to determine firsthand whether I wanted him to succeed.

So I asked him why, despite Iowa being an “agricultural state,” none of the candidates on either side were talking about agriculture. He told me he expected they would be, but that he preferred to talk about food and health. He then quoted chapter and verse from the previous weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine feature by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

OK, I liked this guy.

When Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses and the White House, I had high hopes that our agricultural system would change overnight. Then he appointed Iowa’s former governor, Tom Vilsack, to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and my heart sank. Vilsack’s an OK guy, but he always had a politician’s tendency to ride the fence, and any time he did something helpful for sustainable agriculture, he did two more things for Monsanto or Tyson.

Then Vilsack appointed Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary, and hope sprouted once again. Merrigan helped develop USDA's organic labeling rules while head of the Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999-2001, and later ran the Tufts University Agriculture, Food and Environment Program that gave rise to the Community Food Security Coalition.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article reports how Merrigan, speaking on behalf of the Obama Administration, “outlined a broad array of efforts to elevate organic and local farming to a prominence never seen before at the sprawling U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

After roughly six decades of being the U.S. Department of Agribusiness, Merrigan is trying to put the “culture” back in the department. Her goals include stricter enforcement of the USDA organic label, more support for the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program to connect local farmers with consumers, and improving access to fresh, healthy food in so-called “food deserts.” These goals may sound like dinner table talk for some circles, but they’re a radical departure from the past and a gutsy move on Merrigan’s part. As the Chronicle put it, “Big growers were not thrilled.”

While a few decades late and far from a panacea, the USDA’s apparent epiphany is welcome news for those who care about real food. I believe a few useful next steps might be:

  • Capping the subsidy system, both in terms of amounts doled out and who gets them. Today 75% of the subsidies in the U.S. go to the largest 10% of farms. In Texas, the No. 1 state in receiving federal subsidies, 72% of farms do not receive government subsidies at all.
  • Refocusing on healthy food and land stewardship. Today the crop that receives the most subsidies is corn/feed grain; more than twice any other crop. This has created an overabundance of cheap corn and contributed to skyrocketing high fructose corn syrup consumption (along with early onset diabetes and childhood obesity). It’s also why ground- and water-polluting CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) can afford to stay in business.
  • Moving the school lunch program out of the auspices of the USDA and into a joint program of the Department of Education and Health and Human Services. I believe this program should be administered by people who are inclined put the health and well-being of children before the interests of agribusiness giants.

While we’re at it, there are always a few cabinet shuffles around the presidential midterm. Why not elevate Ms. Merrigan to Mr. Vilsack’s job? We can always hope.

kurt-thumbKurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.

Share The Love!

NOURISH-EVOLUTION-recipe-download-img

Lorem ipsum dolor

Consectetur Adipiscing Elit, Sed Do Eiusmod Tempor Incididunt Ut Labore Et Dolore Magna Aliqua.

Hey there ... I'm Lia Huber

Hey there ... I'm Lia Huber

My mission is to inspire and equip you to live a richer life through real food by becoming a more competent, confident home cook.


I’m the author of Nourished: A Memoir of Food, Faith, and Enduring Love, founder and CEO of Nourish Evolution, and the creator of Cook the Seasons, Home Cooking School, and the Real Food Reset, and I empower intentional women to cook in a way that brings them (and their families) joy, health, and ease.

Making the shift from processed food to real food doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an evolution that occurs over time, with effort, intention, and belief. And it will change the course of your life. Are you ready to take the first step? I’m so glad you’re here … and I’m honored to be with you on the journey to becoming nourished!

Nourish Evolution video

Watch the video and download the customized action plan to take the first step on your nourish evolution now.

Watch the video and download my customized action plan to take the first step on your nourish evolution now.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

Rustic Crispy Chicken Cutlets

These cutlets are a simplified version of chicken Milanese, using a flavorful schmear of Dijon mustard instead of an egg and dredging the chicken in one coating of bread crumbs.

Read More

Sticky-Sweet Sugar Snap Peas

This simple side dish adds Asian flair to any meal. These sugar snaps are delicious hot out of the pan or at room temperature for lunch the next day. Mirin is a sweet wine made from glutinous rice that’s a staple of Japanese cooking.

Read More

Radish and Feta Flatbread

This is based on a bar snack Alison spotted while, well, sitting at the counter at a local wine bar watching the bartender turn out quick pizza-like snacks with lavash (a type of Armenian flatbread), a variety of toppings and a toaster oven.

Read More

Privacy Policy

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin vel ullamcorper nisl. Praesent tincidunt nibh sit amet sagittis porttitor. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Maecenas euismod ullamcorper libero, quis sollicitudin metus ullamcorper et. Curabitur elementum tincidunt fringilla. Vestibulum a ligula vitae dui rutrum consectetur non nec quam. Aliquam gravida ornare erat, sit amet lobortis massa sagittis pellentesque. Sed dapibus sed est nec blandit. Curabitur tellus felis, porttitor et odio nec, elementum aliquam sem. Nam ut dui enim. Nullam ac ornare odio. Nullam pulvinar purus porttitor dolor gravida lobortis.

Ut pulvinar pulvinar neque ut euismod. In tempor placerat risus, ut tempus eros congue vel. Ut venenatis ultricies magna, porta hendrerit dolor posuere ut. In sit amet tempor ante, eget lacinia ipsum. Nunc in condimentum ex. Sed sit amet urna ultrices, euismod urna vitae, sollicitudin orci. Quisque non justo convallis, scelerisque nulla sit amet, tincidunt augue.