Yesterday I had the pleasure of being invited by organizer Renee Frigo Graeff, local entrepreneur (founder of Lucini Italia) and president of Slow Food Miami, to have a stage with the President of the United States flanked by female peers in South Florida’s food industry. Ok, it was physically once removed, but hopefully no less impactful.
USDA Under Secretary Edward Avalos sits on the house subcommittee on agriculture, energy, and trade, which means in addition to working for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak, he the reports to the big guy. Avalos has been making the rounds to cities across the country — 28 to be exact — bringing local movers and shakers in the food industry together and to the table to discuss issues related to food access, Big Ag, and the plight of small farmers. In addition to providing a platform for voices to be heard, the Under Secretary is sharing information on the USDA’s Know Your Farmer Know your Food Compass Campaign and government grants currently being activated at the community level. Some we are up close and personal with, like the Farm-to-School grant that the Miami-Dade County Public School system works with as part of its Chef Partnership program.
After a request from the White House office of Public Engagement last fall as part of its national women’s outreach initiative, followed by another for environment and climate change (which was held a couple of days ago,) Graeff assembled 30 influential and local women in food for what was a provocative and important round table at Coral Reef Yacht Club in Coconut Grove yesterday. Attendees included farmer Teena Borek of Teena’s Pride, Thi Squire from GROW, Bee Heaven Farm’s Margie Pikarsky, Les Dames d’Escoffier Miami Chapter President Ariana Kumpis with members including the Market Company’s Claire Tomlin, food activist and philanthropist Joanne Bander, Slow Food Miami representatives including Farm-to-Table Director Michele Benesch and chairperson Serena Berra Miami Ad School, Founder of CLEO Institute and the Fairchild Challenge Caroline Lewis, Gastronomisti’s Leticia de Mello Bueno, Ann Parsons of The Kampong and Delia Zepeda, a science teacher from neighboring St. Stephens’ Episcopal Day School.
“I think it was a successful meeting in many ways,” explained Graeff via phone earlier today. “I think for a while now the community was looking for a great reason to gather, and it’s refreshing that all of us working toward the same goal could come together at the same table. There was an outpouring of interest to meet again and I do think that voices were heard by Under Secretary Avalos. His state rep was definitely taking lots of notes.”
Indeed it was a very productive use of the morning and with lots of information to absorb, too. One in 10 jobs in the U.S. are in agriculture, accounting for 89 percent food we eat, even if the figure is slightly misleading since it’s mostly “Program Crops” like soybeans versus “Specialty Crops” like fresh vegetables and fruits. Food Safety is handled by the FDA and import inspections by the Department of Homeland Security — not the USDA — a fact that raised many eyebrows. 30 percent of farm operators are women, up 19 percent since the last census, for many reasons like outliving their husbands, being born into a family of farmers or ranchers, or simply because they take interest in growing healthy food for their kids as they interact with the school system. That’s a lot of power that does not go unnoticed in Washington.
Clearly the administration is interested in hearing these local voices, a good thing. “The USDA is committed to support its stakeholders,” Avalos began by addressing the group. In his role, the Under Secretary’s responsibilities are wide-reaching including leadership and oversight of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service which addresses animal and plant pests and diseases; the Agricultural Marketing Service, which provides standardization testing and marketing of commodities and specialty crops; and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, which promotes marketing of livestock, cereals and meats, as well as fair trade practices. To have his audience for a full two hours was hugely meaningful.
Growing up on a family farm in the Mesilla Valley of Southern New Mexico, Avalos’ mother was a school cafeteria manager, which prompted the first topic of discussion about what is being done to improve food quality in this, the nation’s fourth-largest school system. I lauded the Chefs Move to Schools initiative of the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama, and the good that can be accomplished with baby steps, for example at one school. It also helps to have strong leadership like we have in Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Food & Nutrition Department, to affect the system at large.
While much is being done to identify areas of improvement and rally support from community partners to affect change on a grass roots level, frustrations were expressed to Avalos about macro policy barriers thanks to the food lobby in Washington. Congress’ inability to effectively law-make is prohibiting important changes to the system from occurring so that, for example, it can become an economic reality for small farmers like Teena Borek and Margie Pikarsky to get their product into school cafeterias. For local produce to be purchased by schools, it must satisfy certain guidelines (like be pre-processed,) not to mention all the bidding and contracting that only larger companies are equipped to handle. We need the largest school systems to have help to break through some of the barriers, Joanne Bander smartly suggested. Teena was not surprisingly also one of the first to speak up on this and other issues, pointing questions to Avalos like defining what the word ‘local’ means. According to current loose use of the term, buying from distributors like Sysco could even be considered local.
There was praise for the My Plate program, which replaced the failing Food Pyramid, but there was consensus on more and smarter education needed to implement the new tool. Respect for food, Ariana Kumpis noted, is something that needs to be better taught at home and in schools. And sometimes something as simple as slicing apples in the cafeteria could get kids to eat them, and stop all the waste that occurs when whole fruits, which tend to be unappealing to kids, are thrown away — but that means more time and labor. Avalos explained that the Farm to School Grant includes funding to purchase equipment for cafeterias, with a budget to train people to operate it as well.
It appeared from listening to Avalos, that most of the power stakeholders can obtain to affect short term change, in the absence of a readily available solution for the entrenched Washington lobby, is through government grants. The State of Florida was one of two states to receive $4.3 million in specialty crop block grants, which is currently being used to subsidize farmers markets and other community initiatives to “enhance the competitiveness of Florida specialty crops.” Read about them here. Margie Pikarsky, the most marketing savvy farmer I know, raised a brilliant point.
“‘Specialty Crops’ is an inaccurate term to begin with,” she exclaimed. “By calling them that, we marginalize them. No wonder the program crops are the priority and receive the most subsidies.”
“So what are we going to call them, ‘Non-Program Crops’?” Avalos retorted. It was likely meant in jest, but definitely passively dismissed what I thought was a brilliant idea. Sometimes a lot can come from a label. Living that world in her day job at Miami Ad School, Serena Berra agreed and inquired about funding for campaigns akin to what the Truth Campaign did to create a powerful anti-smoking movement from the ground-up.
Caroline Lewis identified a great recommendation for the USDA to produce a Public Service Announcement with fair and objective information on issues related to food justice in America, delivered by people we and the public at large can identify with sharing those messages.
“To create the political will in the public – to get a fair, balanced message where they see each other,” Lewis rallied. “We need to hold elected officials accountable.”
Sure there were a lot of frustrated sighs in the room – particularly when the word Sysco was uttered – but I think that was exactly what happened yesterday. Or at least the seed of it. Let us know what you think in the comment section below, and have your voice heard by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.