Matt Herrick, Senior Vice President at Story Partners, is speaking at the third annual D.C. Food Tank Summit, Let’s Build a Better Food Policy, which will be hosted in partnership with George Washington University and the World Resources Institute on February 2, 2017.
A veteran of two Farm Bills and multiple trade negotiations, Matt led communications for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) using digital and traditional media to share stories and connect with grassroots. He worked across two presidential administrations to help shape responses to global events including agricultural development in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the Ebola epidemic, and the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Now, he leads Story Partners, a strategic public affairs firm, in their growing food, agriculture, and trade practice as Senior Vice President.
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Matt about his background, his work with the USDA, and looking towards the future of food policy.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Matt Herrick (MH): I was a journalist and began reporting a story about a Bosnian refugee who had settled in upstate New York after the civil war in the 1990s to build a better life. This story led me to study the work of development agencies and humanitarian organizations, which led to a career in agricultural development communications and, eventually, public affairs for government, nonprofit, and private sector groups. In each stage of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with people who produce food—from smallholders in conflict-affected areas to larger, super-efficient producers in the U.S. That connection is an important one for me.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
MH: You could say, I am searching for common ground. By using conventional and disruptive strategies, I want to help people develop an appreciation for our food system, for those who cultivate the land to produce our food, for the innovation required to feed billions, and for the totality of the infrastructure required to move such an array of products to customers around the world. I’ve worked different sides of food policy and food communications issues, so it’s not so much ideology that inspires me, but rather a feeling that we have much more in common than we acknowledge.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
MH: One of my grandmothers, Grace. She—as were all my grandparents—was from a family of immigrants who scraped by for years to put healthy meals on the table, put decent clothes on the kids, and pay the bills. For her, meals were a celebration of everything a family had worked to achieve. When she and my grandfather were younger, they kept chickens and goats in the backyard. She handmade pasta and bread. They made wine in the cellar. And they didn’t waste a thing. I learned to love food by loving the people who prepared it. That was an important lesson.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
MH: The ‘us versus them’ mentality that pervades food and agriculture policy today (and many of our most important policy conversations). This is bigger than any one issue, and all the leaders in food and agriculture can make an important contribution here. Find me someone who doesn’t want a food system that is sustainable, efficient, transparent, affordable, safe, fair, and respects the balance of natural resources with meeting increasing demand. These tenets do not belong to any one organization, movement, or party. To get what we all want, then, requires greater focus on building meaningful alliances with ‘uncommon bedfellows,’ if you will. Communications is an important part of building long-lasting alliances.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
MH: I went to a Jesuit college and really absorbed the spirit of community service the Jesuits teach. I’ve met many people who I’d consider food heroes, but the greatest is someone I’ve not met—Roberto Clemente. I was fortunate enough to visit his home in San Juan, to meet his wife, Vera Clemente—an inspiring individual in her own right—as well as their sons and their wives and children (grandchildren to Roberto and Vera). Mrs. Clemente and her daughters-in-law cooked a big meal for dinner, right there in the kitchen. We sat down with the family and listened to story after story about Roberto and his commitment to humanitarian service in Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America. As we know, Roberto lost his life delivering aid (food, medical supplies, and other items) to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was the real deal.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
MH: The lack of appreciation for scientific consensus on important issues. Some members of the food and agriculture community are heading down a slippery slope by working to undermine the concept of scientific consensus, which has then impacted discussions around food safety, nutrition, energy, environmental issues, food security, and others. That is where my work comes in—in educating influencers and consumers about what is real and what is false.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
MH: Drink a glass water before each meal. It will help you consume less and, therefore, waste less. We waste one-third of all food produced in the world. We can do better.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
MH: Food policy has never been better. Let’s keep moving forward with an eye toward what’s needed tomorrow rather than today. Today, we value the producer and their need to balance resources and remain productive. We value the consumer and their need to know. We have a deeper appreciation for the connection between food and agriculture policy with the health and wellbeing of children and families. And we are more committed than ever to expanding markets and creating additional opportunities for businesses, especially young and beginning entrepreneurs. But land and equipment are more expensive than ever and credit is tight. As we approach the next Farm Bill, let’s prioritize the next generation. Let’s create new incentives for older landowners to transition land to younger people so they can strengthen rural communities. Let’s turn our conservation programs and business and farm loan programs into a recruitment tool. And let’s continue to expand markets for conventional and organic products alike.