USDA undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan (right) has volunteered her time and energy at many of the local programs that collectively comprise the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.
Communication between consumers and farmers is increasingly important. And yet, far too many times, misinformation rules the day. It was through that frustration that Kathleen Merrigan and others at USDA launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative in 2009.
Merrigan was recently honored by the James Beard Foundation for her role in making this initiative a success. Merrigan received the JBF Leadership Award alongside author Wendell Berry, Dr. Jason Clay (World Wildlife Fund), Tensie Whelan (Rainforest Alliance) Malik Yakini (Detroit Black Community Food Security Network).
"These trailblazers are all working to create a more sustainable future, and it is through their monumental achievements that we are able to continue a critical conversation about the future of food," says Susan Ugaro, president of JBF.
Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a USDA-wide effort to promote local and regional food systems. A key way it does this is through a website that hopes to be more of a "one stop shop" than prior online resources. Merrigan’s inspiration for the initiative came from her "do it better" attitude. She says that while USDA has a lot of really helpful information, its website doesn’t inspire a sense of user-friendliness.
"The USDA website is a huge mountain to climb," she says. "How do people really know what’s there? How can we make it more accessible and transparent to people?"
USDA helped answer to these questions through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website, Merrigan says. Their goal is to open up conversations about food and promote transparency about local USDA funding, she says. To that end, the website houses information about grants and loans, school-to-farm programs, and other tools and resources that are easy to navigate.
But the highlight of the website is their interactive compass map, Merrigan says.
"The map shows who got what funding, and what the money was used for," she says. "All of the information is also downloadable. It’s really accessible. There’s no more wondering who’s getting resources and how they’re using them."
Merrigan hopes local communities will use the interactive map to discover inspiring success stories and engage in newfound networking opportunities. The website adds content on a regular basis. The latest round of changes include state fact sheets with information on farm characteristics, farm financial indicators, top commodities and more.
The program has full support of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack as well as the Obama Administration. As President Obama has noted, "When we create opportunities for farmers and ranchers, our entire nation reaps the benefit."
Merrigan says she is flattered by the James Beard Foundation for bestowing her its leadership award, but she says there is still much work to be done.
"I’m proud of what we’ve done, but there are still many untapped avenues," she says. "We’ve just scratched the surface. We can do better."
"Know Your Farmer" Goals