Kathleen Merrigan joins experts, community members for 5th Annual Friedman Symposium



by Sarah Gold

As a first year Friedman student, I was certainly looking forward to the annual Friedman Symposium, a three day conference for the exchange of ideas addressing current food and nutrition challenges. And this year’s event did not disappoint, as I was treated to a long list of experts, lively discussions, and the speaker I was looking forward to most, Kathleen Merrigan. Students and professionals from the nutrition, food, and agriculture sectors flooded the Jaharis center for the 5th annual Freidman Symposium, totaling nearly 275 guests throughout the weekend. The conference was also broadcast online, adding another 225 attendees.

The weekend began with two all new half-day workshops: one with Jennifer Hashley of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, and the other with Randa Wilkinson from the Positive Deviance Initiative. Reflecting on these workshops, Mark Krumm, Director of Communications for the Friedman School, said they were a great addition to the symposium and he hopes to include more next year. The students enjoyed them as well. Many agreed it was great to start by diving into a topic and getting hands-on experience with the some of the leaders in these two fields.

This year’s event boasted an impressive lineup of speakers—the best ever, according to Krumm – and the audience that the symposium attracts year after year is a testament to the quality of the speakers. While there was a mix of science and policy, the focus leaned toward international nutrition security. Friday’s sessions concentrated on agriculture policy, trade, and markets. Among the highlights were Dr. Werner Schultink’s talk on Haiti and the issues of acute nutrition security and Dr. Jenny Aker’s discussion on Food Insecurity and Extreme Poverty in the Sahel. Saturday brought what some attendees considered to be more controversial topics; starting with Dr. Doug Balentine’s talk on the food industry’s responsibility in health and wellness and a closing with two very opposing viewpoints on marketing to children, which left attendees debating afterwards.

Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, USDA, and former Friedman professor, made a short, but memorable return to kick off the event. She stood comfortably behind the podium in the Behrakis auditorium; it was clear she had spent many days lecturing in that same spot. She joked about the benefits of her new position, such as dancing next to Taylor Swift to a Prince song at an event to celebrate her nomination for the TIME 100 most influential people list. But she quickly turned to the reason she was here: to talk about USDA’s nutrition assistance programs, which comprise 70% of its $149 billion budget. Right away, she addressed the audience’s main concern: what is the USDA doing to minimize hunger and under-nutrition in America? Many of the attendees appeared pleasantly surprised to hear her discuss the continued success of the core nutrition programs such as SNAP, WIC, and School Meals programs. But they were even happier to hear about what else is in the works to improve the participation and quality of these three programs. The point that really elicited a lot of agreeing head nods was her discussion of what she calls a “classic policy paradox. ” How can we have a country that has both a hunger and obesity crisis at the same time? The root cause of both is lack of access to good, healthy food,” Merrigan stated. It’s a complicated problem, and one that we discuss often at Friedman, so I was eager to hear her thoughts on how to address this huge issue. One of the most promising solutions she offered was the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a program designed to address the issue of food deserts and to provide greater access to healthy food for the 23 million Americans who currently get most of their food from corner and convenience stores. It will hopefully pass as part of the 2011 budget. Speaking of the budget, the outlook is bleak, according to Merrigan, especially after the recent elections. “Why couldn’t I be deputy during the good years?” she joked. But even with such a weak economy and tough position, she has a positive outlook.

One of her biggest challenges in her new role is convincing consumers of the affordability of healthy food. “I’m still [fighting] an uphill battle talking about the cost of fruits and vegetables.” Merrigan believes you can eat a healthy diet on a very limited budget. She has a pretty convincing argument, in my opinion. “To eat the quantity of fruits and vegetables consistent with the dietary guidelines, it would take an average of just under two dollars a day…apples are about 28 cents per cup, bananas 21 cents, carrots 25 cents.” She called upon our community to help her in getting this message across. Communication and education appear to be the key tactics here. She wrapped up her talk with a great overview of her Know Your Farmer Know Your Food campaign and the importance of local and regional food systems in the battle against both hunger and obesity.

So, what lies ahead for Merrigan, the USDA, and the rest of us working in the nutrition and agriculture fields? “The magnitude of what we’re about to face is pretty heart-stopping. We will have to think about new ways of doing things and unusual coalitions to muscle our way through” she said with a loud sigh. We have a lot of work cut out for us, but that’s why we’re all here, right?

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