Local farms can boost nutrition and the economy

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

One of the biggest myths about the obesity epidemic is that Americans cant afford fresh fruits and vegetables, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said during a visit to Colorado this week.

We have 18 million kids in this country who are food insecure while we also have an obesity epidemic, Merrigan said during a talk at the University of Colorado Denver on Thursday.

I like to do some myth-busting, she said. People say if we increase the number of fruits and vegetables, it increases the cost. Fruits and vegetables are too expensive.

We have a lot of analysis that shows thats not true, she said.

Honored by Time Magazine in 2010 as one of the top 100 people who most affect our world, Merrigan has long promoted local, healthy foods. Now, shes taking her Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program on the road to entice young people to get into farming and urge local officials to see fresh, local food as an engine for economic recovery. Support for local food, like Colorado beef and peaches, can boost the economy and make people healthier, she said.

Trend-spotters says local food is in high demand at restaurants and grocery stores. And, when it comes to reversing the obesity epidemic, Merrigan said Americans absolutely can and must afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Named to Time’s Top 100 for 2010, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said it’s a myth that healthy fruits and vegetables are too expensive. Farming can be an economic engine while eating locally can reduce obesity rates, Merrigan said Thursday at the University of Colorado Denver.

Of course, if you want to buy raspberries out of season, they will be expensive. But she said even the poorest of children can fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables as the new ChooseMyPlate recommendations suggest.

If you do in-season fruits and vegetables, you can easily have the 2010 dietary guidelines. You can have that half-a-plate within the allotment that we give people who are on food stamps, Merrigan says.

Critics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture say government subsidies are supporting corporate giants who produce unhealthy, processed food.

Merrigan conceded that most people think the bulk of the Agriculture Departments spending focuses on subsidies when in fact she said 72 percent funds nutrition assistance programs like farm subsidies, food stamps, WIC, school meals and support for food banks.

To say that the Farm Bill causes obesity is too simplistic, Merrigan says.

Its a lot more complicated than that. When you look at farm subsidies, direct payments are about $5 billion out of $150 billion. The obesity crisis is I think brought on by a lot of different things, Merrigan said. People dont have time. Weve lost the art of cooking. We have food deserts. If it were as simple as rewriting the Farm Bill, that would be great.

On top of promoting the health effects of local and regional farming and cattle production, Merrigan has been visiting college campuses because shes eager to promote farming to young people.

The popularity of connecting with farmers is clearly on the rise. Merrigan said there are now nearly 8,000 farmers markets in the country, more than ever before. But the average age of farmers in the U.S. is late 50s.

Over 30 percent are over age 65 and I come across dairy farmers in their 80s, she said.

Farmers are not working into their retirement years out of choice, Merrigan said. Theyre struggling to transfer their skills and knowledge to willing young farmers.

Yes, getting started in farming is expensive. Yes, the farmers who are doing best are those who work on tiny farms and very large farms. The typical family farm is struggling. But, Merrigan said farm income was outstanding last year and young people should consider becoming farmers. Consumers should also get to know their local farmers.

Not every family needs a lawyer, she says. But every family needs a farmer. Do you know yours?

Merrigan, who jokingly calls herself Lady AgAg after being honored by Time Magazine alongside Lady GaGa, said farmers can do well financially while also providing the foods to make their communities healthier.

Theres a sliver of good news on the obesity front, she said.

In the last two to three months, for the first time, were seeing a little plateau, she said.

Nationwide, obesity levels could finally be reaching their peak.

Our hope is thatmaybe we can start to turn the tide. Come on Colorado.