The Food Policy Leadership Institute (FPLI) at the George Washington University will welcome its first class in September 2017. The FPLI certificate program is tailored for working professionals and designed around the goal of deepening the bench of young leaders ready to carry forward meaningful food and agriculture policy agendas.
The program’s curriculum will be delivered primarily via distance learning but will include regular visits to farms and food processing facilities. Near the conclusion of the program, participants will also travel to Washington, D.C., to interface directly with food policy leaders of all stripes and tour farms and processing facilities along the eastern seaboard. Lead by Professor of Public Policy Kathleen Merrigan, the Institute’s 16-member faculty roster includes lobbyists, CEOs, congressional staff, lawyers, and economists.
According to the FPLI’s leadership, multiple of the existential challenges facing the food system today cannot be solved through individual action or marketplace campaigns alone. Fewer young farmers come from farming backgrounds, agriculture is moving onto rooftops and into buildings, and even in traditional farming communities the pace of change is continuing to accelerate. The FPLI faculty contend that government policy plays a fundamental role in dictating who can tap into resources and for what purposes, who has access to food and of what quality, and how well persistent and historical inequalities are addressed.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Merrigan, the Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University and the Founder of the Food Policy Leadership Institute. From 2009 to 2013, Dr. Merrigan was U.S. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She wrote the law establishing national standards for organic food. Her prior students have progressed to leadership roles such as the Administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (a role Merrigan herself also previously held), heading up sustainability and industry relations at major food companies, and steering investments in climate change at international foundations.
Food Tank (FT): What drove you to sit down at your desk and say “the bench is too shallow, we need to develop a leadership training program?”
Dr. Kathleen Merrigan (KM): The challenges are so great. There’s a growing chorus in support of the kind of change we need in the food system and there’s an unbelievable new interest in food that is wind in the sails for new policy change. But when I look across the spectrum of organizations involved, there are just not enough strong young leaders who have the kind of knowledge base necessary to really make that change. We also need to have a lot more diversity in our leadership circles.
FT: The Initiative’s prospectus talks a lot about including diversity of perspective in the program. Why do you consider that so important and how are you working to ensure that it happens as the program develops?
KM: I always tell people that when Ann Veneman was named the Secretary of Agriculture for President Bush you could have knocked me down with a feather. I thought we’d see a woman president of the United States before we saw a woman Secretary of Agriculture. Frankly, the world of policy leaders has been very largely dominated by white men and I think it’s really important that we get a pipeline of leaders that are reflective of the changing demographics in this country. I’m really wanting to try to nurture a diverse cohort of young people who can become persuasive and creative leaders from a variety of communities. I want to make sure those communities are represented at the table when decisions are made.
We’ve been reaching out to a lot of organizations that are deeply engaged with communities of color and organizations working on Native American tribal concerns. We’re reaching out to the philanthropic community to help us identify a cohort of people who would be natural applicants for this program from among grantees that are working in social justice. We’re also trying to raise the funding necessary to provide the kind of scholarship support that means that nobody is disqualified from this program because they can’t afford it.
FT: Who are you designing this program for?
KM: During my Ph.D. I ended up doing a lot of learning-by-doing because there was not a drop-down menu of real food policy courses. I think this is true of a lot of the leaders who are instructors in this course. So I’m hoping that this program of study is going to be for people who similarly have been held back by that scarcity of the right kinds of classes. It’s for people who are launched in their careers and who don’t have time to take off two years to be a full-time Master’s student. At the same time, the program can help people who do want to get a Master’s degree because these credits could transfer to institutions that they might want to enroll in. Certainly, the credits will be applicable to an online Master’s in Public Health here at George Washington University.
FT: Could you talk about your partners and who you’re excited to have with you at the table and in the (virtual) classroom?
KM: What a fun thing for me—I’ve put together a dream team faculty! We’ve got folks like Bill Gillon at the Cotton Board, with whom I shared an office for years working for Senator Leahy on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Bill helped me draft the Organic Food Production Act. He’s been more involved with traditional agriculture over his career and has spent many years in the cotton industry, so he brings a huge amount of perspective for the fellows in the program. Folks like Walter Robb, who about three-quarters of a year ago exited the position of CEO at Whole Foods Market and who helped build that company to what it is today. He’s a really thoughtful, creative industry leader. To Janie Hipp, who is at the University of Arkansas Law School now and was the head and founder of the Office of Tribal Relations at USDA when I was there. She’s been a really great advocate for Indian Country.
Across the 16 faculty members, we have a really incredible history of policy engagement. In the program prospectus, we say it’s over 200 years, but it’s a lot more than that if you add it up. For all of our sakes, we didn’t really try to pin the number perfectly. These are people who have been at the table for a long time in a variety of situations, people who know how the game is played and who are, like me, really ready to download those experiences and that information to the next generation.
FT: The Institute plans to do the bulk of its teaching online, which brings with it both advantages and limitations. Why does online education make sense in this case?
KM: I think that people are still learning how to do online education well. I have seen it deployed in a variety of ways, some not all that effective. I think and hope that ours will be state of the art and I’m seeking lots of advice from online learning experts about what it takes to do it well. As for advantages, online delivery allows working professionals to participate and it allows us to pump out really good young leaders at a faster pace than traditional graduate programs.
But I want to stress that this program is not just online. There are requirements during the traditional academic year, from September to May, for people to go out to visit food production operations, something they’ll coordinate in concert with our farmer faculty member. There will be significant individual mentoring from the faculty. During the 3 weeks that the cohort comes together in June, they will be hearing from incredible leaders here in DC, working on group research projects, and doing food production touring in the [Delaware, Maryland, Virginia] region. Part of our message with the requirements to visit food production operations is that good policy should never be, and could never be, constructed without real, close working relationships with the people who produce our food.
To me, the online stuff in its best iteration is akin to the idea of a flipped classroom. Universities have this reputation for being hubs of innovation, but actually in some ways are real laggards in innovating how to deliver services. Now in the age of technology, does it really make sense to sit in a big lecture hall and listen to a professor yap on with their slides, or does it make sense to try to figure out an innovative way to deliver some of that stuff ahead of time? Then when people get together it should be about co-learning and problem solving and creative discussions. To me, that’s what we’re aspiring to in this program.
FT: You’ve often advocated for what might be the most bipartisan, widely-agreed upon goal for the domestic food system: to get new, young farmers onto the land. How does this initiative move us towards that and other concrete goals for the food system?
KM: There’s a lot of policy that has yet to be developed that is necessary to help re-populate our working lands with the next generation of farmers and ranchers. I’ve been working with the National Young Farmers Coalition on their survey and though the results aren’t public yet, I can say that essentially there are huge challenges that are fairly consistent whether you grew up on a farm or are someone who, post-college and without any background or family in farming, decided to go work the land. Those challenges are pretty profound. During the Obama administration, we spent a good deal of effort trying to help beginning farmers. I know that what we did, while it was good and I’m proud of it, was still just scratching the surface of what we know needs to be done. So I’m hoping this is one area where new people trained in policy, when they get their chops, can really go full force. So I’m also hoping that we have some young farmers and ranchers who might be a part of this cohort because even if your life goal is not to come to Washington, D.C., which I certainly understand, I want people who are going to be leaders in a variety of ways. We certainly need farmer and rancher and food processor voices who understand and value engagement in the policy arena.
FT: What are your hopes for the first generation of graduates?
KM: My hope is that they become change agents. They may already be people who are trying to engage in policy towards change, but I hope that they become really successful change agents. I hope that the information they learn through this program empowers them to accomplish what’s important for their communities. There’s not a cookie-cutter way of doing that, and I don’t think it all needs to be government work. We’re seeing some really interesting partnerships with industry, and in some ways industry today is becoming more responsive to consumers’ demands around food than the government. Some people are going to be working in state governments after the program, some people are going to be working in NGOs, some people are going to be in the ag tech field. I’m hoping to have students that come from a variety of fields and will go back into a variety of fields with a knowledge base that helps elevate the discussion. And as a cohort, they will build relationships not just with the faculty members that we have, who all want to play a mentoring role with these students, but also with each other.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.