Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of Sustainability and Professor of Public Policy at the George Washington University (GW), will be speaking at the Washington, D.C. Food Tank Summit, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Young Food Leaders,” which will be held in partnership with the George Washington University, the World Resources Institute, the National Farmers Union, Future Farmers of America, and the National Young Farmers Coalitin on February 28, 2018.
As GW’s Executive Director of Sustainability, Kathleen leads the GW Sustainability Collaborative and the GW Food Institute. With an extensive background in agriculture policy, she also fulfills leadership roles with a range of other food-focused organizations, including AGree, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, FoodCorps, the Harvard Pilgrim Healthy Food Fund, and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Agriculture & Food initiative. Merrigan also served as U.S. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 2009 and 2013. Her endeavors in this role included the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, the “Let’s Move!” campaign, and chairing the Ministerial Conference of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Kathleen about her inspirations, motivations, and hopes for the future of food and agriculture.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Kathleen Merrigan (KM): Part of my first job post-college was helping a farming community devastated by pesticide-contaminated wells so severe that residents were advised not to shower in the water. It was a wake-up call for me, for the farmers who had followed the pesticide labels, and for Massachusetts state legislators who responded by investing in the world-renowned University of Massachusetts Amherst Integrated Pest Management Program.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
KM: Used to be that no one cared to hear me ramble on about my work—food and agriculture weren’t hip. Now, I’m the belle of the ball. I am very optimistic by the turn-around in agriculture’s popularity. I’m focused on scaling up interest in, and increasing literacy about, food and agriculture so that leaders see this as an “opportunity zone.” That means engaging more and diverse voices and making sure that food system issues are on the minds of everyday Americans.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
KM: Ask anyone—these days I’m a girl obsessed with milking robots. If we can figure out a federal government cost-share and bring down the price point, I think this innovation, now popular in Europe, can help small-scale dairy farms survive and thrive, particularly where I grew up in New England. I’m also jazzed by agroforestry—the right tree in the right place, for the right purpose. In the United States, it’s typically forestry or agriculture. We have yet to fully integrate the two and reap the benefits. And food waste—the new thinking on this issue is very exciting and important.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
KM: When President Bush nominated Ann Veneman to be secretary of agriculture, I was stunned. I expected that we’d see a woman president of the U.S. before we’d see a female secretary of agriculture. Gender and racial divides remain a challenge in American agriculture. So Ann has been a “shero” of mine because she has been a trailblazer for women. When my name was announced as a nominee for Deputy Secretary and again, when I said I would be stepping down, Secretary Veneman was the first to reach out and congratulate me. We don’t have to agree on every issue to have mutual respect and admiration.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
KM: Young people keep me on my toes and challenge and inspire me to do better. I don’t understand climate deniers. They should visit a university campus. My students don’t question whether the climate is changing; they are understandably alarmed and question the sluggish response by world leaders. I was in Paris, and excited by the historic agreement. But agriculture was not really part of that discussion—it needs to be.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
KM: The biggest difference between then and now is that we exist in a globalized food system, with all the pluses and minuses that go with it. The result is that when we encounter problems, they are far more complex.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
KM: The world’s farmers are women and we need to empower them. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization analysis finds that if women were given the same access to education, resources, and leadership positions as men, world food production would increase by 30 percent—the equivalent of feeding 150 million people. What an opportunity!
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
KM: We have no choice but to figure out how to transition our working lands to the next generation of farmers and ranchers, many of whom will not have grown up on a farm. I love what the USDA is doing to support beginning farmers, but it’s not enough to meet the challenge. I grew up next door to a farm, but in high school, it was sold for commercial development when old Mr. Roberts passed away. We need a bigger tool box.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
KM: Day one, I would like to see the White House showcase American grown flowers in the arrangements that span the property. How about American grown flowers at all the inaugural balls? Know your farmer, know your flower! It’s a little thing, I know, but it could be implemented on day one, even in the dead of winter. I would also like to suggest placing Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate, on the president’s and first spouse’s bedside table.
The D.C. Food Tank Summit is SOLD OUT but tickets remain for our Seattle Summit!. Register HERE for the Seattle Food Tank Summit, Growing Food Policy on March 17. This event will sell out – register today!