07/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Audacity of Hope Springs Eternal

Among the many unique aspects of living in Iowa is our first-in-the-nation caucus system. Three years ago, after going out with other campaign volunteers and planting trees for Earth Day, I had the honor of meeting a skinny, unknown, African American, freshman Senator from Illinois who had the audacity to believe he could be elected president. I had about three minutes to determine firsthand whether I wanted him to or not.

So I asked him why it was, despite Iowa being and "agricultural state," none of the candidates on either side was talking about agriculture. He told me he expected they would be, but that he preferred to talk about food and health. He then went on to quote chapter and verse from the previous weekend's New York Times Sunday Magazine feature by a UC Berkeley Professor named Michael Pollan.

OK, I like this guy.

Stunning the whole world, Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses and the White House, and I had high hopes that our system would change overnight. Then he appointed Iowa's former Governor, Tom Vilsack, to head the USDA, and my heart sank. Vilsack's an okay guy, but he always had a politician's tendency to ride the fence, and any time he did something helpful for the sustainable ag world, he did two more things for Monsanto or Tyson.

Then Vilsack appointed Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary, and hope sprouted once again. Merrigan helped develop USDA's organic labeling rules while head of the Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999-2001, and later ran the Tufts University Agriculture, Food and Environment Program that gave rise to the Community Food Security Coalition.

Just three scant years after I met him on the banks of the Iowa River, I read where President Obama and Kathleen Merrigan "outlined a broad array of efforts to elevate organic and local farming to a prominence never seen before at the sprawling U.S. Department of Agriculture." While short on specifics, the SF Chronicle article did say that "Big growers were not thrilled." Another hopeful sign. After roughly six decades of being the US Dept. of Agribusiness, Merrigan was trying to put the culture back in agriculture.

Talking more like a Berkeley foodie than a USDA bureaucrat, Merrigan described efforts to penetrate "food deserts" in poor neighborhoods where people rely on corner markets and liquor stores for groceries, tougher enforcement of the USDA organic label and initiatives such as the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program to connect local farmers with consumers.

While a few decades late and far from a panacea, the USDA's apparent epiphany is welcome news for those who care about real food. A few useful next steps might be capping the subsidy system and refocusing it on healthy food and land stewardship, and moving the school lunch program out of the auspices of the USDA and into a joint program of the Dept. of Education and HHS.

While we're at it, there are always a few cabinet shuffles around the midterm, why not elevate Ms. Merrigan to Mr. Vilsack's job?

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