USDA official makes case for local produce at UF




USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan discusses the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative at the Straughn Extension Professional Development Center on the University of Florida campus on Jan. 26.     (UF/IFAS Photo by Dawn McKinstry)


Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t quite sure what the term “local food” means.

“Local” has been described as everything from a 400-mile radius to within county limits. It has even been described as a “four-hour leisurely drive” to USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who spoke Thursday night at the University of Florida.

However, the lack of a concrete definition doesn’t bother Merrigan, who says consumers understand what products are local even if they can’t consistently explain it.

“If there’s not one singular definition, it’s OK,” she said. “We’ve got a good enough sense of what (local) is and what it isn’t.”

Geographically defining the concept of local food is central to the PIE Center’s two-year research project that started earlier this month.

Funded by a $150,000 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, PIE Center researchers will explore if consumers define local food as produce grown in the state — as described by the “Fresh from Florida” campaign by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Although consumers are increasingly seeking local fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood, they’re not very knowledgeable about the process of bringing it from the field to the kitchen, Merrigan said.

“There’s a lot of controversy and a grand disconnect between the people who eat food and the ones who produce it,” she said. “They’re a divided world.”

At the University of Florida to promote USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, Merrigan emphasized the need for a reconnection between producers and consumers to help revitalize rural economies.

During her interactive presentation, attendees mistakenly thought the majority of the USDA’s $149 billion budget was set aside for farm subsidies. In fact, 70 percent is spent on nutrition assistance programs such as food stamps. The USDA also supports conservation and forestry efforts with its remaining budget.

Merrigan was also able to boost morale of UF/IFAS educators, researchers and students by strongly objecting to a recent Yahoo article describing agriculture as the most useless college degree.

“There has never been a time in my career where people are more interested in where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” she said. “There is a renaissance of interest, and Yahoo should just be ashamed.”

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