The New and Improved USDA Supports Local, Sustainable Food


I never thought I’d become a Facebook fan of a government agency, but I’m now a fan of the USDA and am also following the agency’s Twitter.

What’s going on here?

For one thing, the USDA has done more to reinvent itself in the last two months than you can imagine. The agency apparently wants you to know the source of your food, to support local agriculture, and to engage in issues involving  food – such as sustainable agriculture.

Here’s a quote from the USDA’s snappy Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website:

“What may be a surprise is that we have programs all across the Department that can cultivate local capacity to strengthen local and regional food systems. We don’t need to create a new slate of programs; we need to make sure that the ones we have work better.”

In short, the USDA is not behaving like the  stereotypical  government agency. It’s behaving like a well run grass roots organization, complete with a personality. It’s doing what government is supposed to do, working with the people and for the people. I think it is remarkable.

The USDA is acknowledging that there is a national conversation going on about food and it is using social media by reaching out to people where they are, rather than trying to start a whole new conversation somewhere else.

The agency is recreating its image not with PR, but by taking action to facilitate the work already going on around farm-to-table school lunches, farmers markets, regional meat processing and distribution, sustainable urban agriculture, young farmer development, and more.

In terms of access, the USDA now holds chats on Facebook in which anyone can participate. There’s also a Twitter with updates on everything from safe turkey tips to grants available for farmers.

YouTube videos on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food site show Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in front of the USDA’s “people’s garden,” footage from farmers’ markets showing regular folks talking about what they’re buying, and farmers discussing life on their farms.

Check out the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food staff page. They’re real people with real connections to the food system and actual personalities. So long, faceless bureaucracy?

Lest you think this is just a savvy social media strategy, take a look at some of the initiatives being put into place.

Better Nutrition and Local Foods in Schools:
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) are teaming up together to form ‘Farm to School Tactical Teams’ to assist school administrators as they transition to purchasing more locally grown foods. The agencies will provide purchasing guidance to schools so they can buy fresh, locally grown produce for students eating through USDA’s school nutrition programs.

Grants for Community Food Systems to Fight Hunger:
$4.8 million will be awarded to local organizations in 14 states to build community food systems and fight hunger and food insecurity. The goal is to connect people more closely with the farmers who supply their food and increase the production, marketing and consumption of fresh, nutritious, local and sustainably grown food. Funds will go to local food policy councils, urban farms, new farmers on preservation farmland, native food sovereignty, and urban and rural food production projects.

“Building local sustainable food systems to be proactive in fighting hunger and obesity is a priority for the Obama Administration, and USDA’s ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative will help meet that goal,” says Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. “These grants put funds in low-income communities that struggle with access to healthy food and they are an important step toward achieving our goal of having healthy, nutritious food available to everyone, especially children.”

Building Agricultural Capacity in the Northeast:
$230,000 in funding will be provided for studies to assess the capacity of the northeastern United States to produce enough food locally to meet market demands, rather than relying on food transported long distances. The project will be replicated in other areas around the United States. More strategic production of locally grown food can counter the challenges of rising transport costs, growing population demands and vanishing farmlands.

Promoting Access to Farmers’ Markets for Food Stamp Recipients
86 grants totally $4.5 million will be made available to support farmers’ markets and other direct marketing programs. A major goal of the program is increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables through the use of electronic benefit transfers (EBT) so that consumers in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can use their benefits for fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

Helping People Open More Farmers’ Markets:
There is a new guide called “Opening a Farmers Market on Federal Property: A Guide for Market Operators and Building Managers.” The publication was jointly published by the Urban Development/Good Neighbor Program of General Services Administration, which administers most federal buildings.

This publication discusses the issues involved in locating a farmers market on federal property: security, insurance needs, parking, the use of utilities and amenities, and all the other things you need to consider. It tells whom to contact for information, points to some helpful government Web sites and offices, and offers case studies of successful farmers markets on public property.

“Opening a Farmers Market on Federal Property: A Guide for Market Operators and Building Managers” is available online.

It must also be said that First Lady Michelle Obama is setting the tone for this new push to improve our food system. When the First Lady plants a kitchen garden, inaugurates a new White House farmers’ market, and visits school cafeterias with the Secretary of Agriculture, people take notice. It’s clear that the First Lady has taken on our nation’s nutrition and our broken food system as two of her causes.

The USDA has come a long long way in a few short months. If the agency succeeds in meaningfully facilitating the work already going on all over the country to change the food system by providing support to the smart, dedicated people doing the work, it will serve as a shining example of government agency running well and serving the people. We need a few of those.

Image: Laura Padgett

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.