Thursday, February 10, 2011

Talkin' FF4F with Kathleen Merrigan

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture and creator of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign. She was visiting NC State University as a guest of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the Ten Percent Campaign. CEFS is a leading institution of the local foods movement in North Carolina, having developed the statewide action guide From Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina's Sustainable Local Food Economy, which, in turn spurred creation of the North Carolina Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council.

I asked Deputy Secretary Merrigan directly about removing the regulatory obstacles blocking the success of the ‘Food and Fuel for the Forces’ (FF4F) initiative and permit Department of Defense procurement agencies to specify a ‘geographic preference’ for the purchase of agricultural products. Making this change to Federal regulations would accelerate the ability of distributors like Foster Caviness to purchase goods locally for direct consumption at Fort Bragg, Camp Lejuene, Seymour Johnson AFB, and other military installations. It would also open up a huge institutional market for farmers in NC’s military region, thereby strengthening local agricultural economies and helping keep farmers profitable and land in production. Furthermore, there is no better next-door neighbor for a military base than a farm or forest, so such a move would be a ‘win-win’ for North Carolina’s two largest industries – agriculture ($70B) and defense ($23B).

The precedent for local preference has already been established in the current (2008) Farm Bill, whereby school systems receiving federal funds under Child Nutrition programs can specify purchase of local products. This has been a boon to the emerging ‘Farm-to-School’ movement.

When I asked her about support for including ‘local preference’ language in the 2012 Farm Bill to address military procurement, her response was unexpected, but welcoming: “Why wait?” She directed her staff assistant to contact me in the next few days so that the appropriate USDA officials can engage with our partners, supportive institutions, and local activists. This is exciting, especially knowing the support that FF4F has from NC’s military commanders, the Governor’s office, and our congressional delegations. With some persistence (and perhaps a few phone calls and visits from our supporters!), we can make this happen!

Stay tuned!

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