A few days ago, I had never heard the name Kathleen Merrigan, but I should have. In 1990, Merrigan authored the bill that set standards for organically-grown foods in the U.S.1 Today, Merrigan is the deputy secretary at the US Department of Agriculture under Tom Vilsack. Merrigan is a hero to the sustainable food movement, an organic food expert and a champion of America’s small farmers. With ideas that include mobile slaughterhouses that would allow small ranches access to processing equipment and ideas to improve and assist community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, her program is aptly named “Know Your Farmers, Know Your Food.” 2
When she stepped into office last spring, none of the 2009 budget set aside for local food had been touched. Merrigan immediately took up the reigns and started shaking up the USDA offices. Merrigan is changing the way that the USDA handles small farmers and has already started a program that will allow conventional farmers to receive grant money to switch to organic farming practices. Much like Jamie Oliver with his school lunch woes, Merrigan is pushing to find ways to make it easier for schools to purchase local produce and improve the menus in our country’s schools.
Merrigan is up against some big players in the USDA and the agricultural industry, but she is not alone in this battle. She has found support on all levels of the USDA from people who were previously afraid to speak out and she has us, members of local food chains voting with our dollars to find things locally and organically.