Former U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture Kathleen Merrigan traveled to the UC Berkeley campus this week to talk to students and the campus community about current challenges in the agricultural industry, including supporting local farmers and reducing waste.
During a graduate student seminar in the department of environmental science, policy and management on Wednesday, Merrigan discussed strategies for developing a sustainable agricultural system — including tying communities together through the buying and selling of local produce.
In an interview with The Daily Californian after the seminar, Merrigan elaborated on how such a strategy could operate in K-12 schools as well as institutions of higher education.
The greatest issue facing elementary, junior and high schools, according to Merrigan, is improving the nutritional quality of cafeteria lunches.
“We have so many children in the country where the school meal is really their only meal, so we want it to be their best kind of meal,” Merrigan said.
She cited first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight child obesity and federal legislation, including the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, as ways to improve children’s health through exercise and lower the fat content in cafeteria food, respectively.
However, Merrigan said Farm to School programs offer one of the best strategies for improving K-12 nutrition. The program consists of local farmers selling their produce to the local schools, and students, in turn, eat fresher food. Many of these programs also include a school garden.
“It is really a great opportunity to have communities be more self-sustaining,” Merrigan said.
While an assistant professor and director of the agriculture, food and environment graduate program at Tufts University, Merrigan and one of her graduate students conducted a study that found students who engage in garden-based learning perform better on science sections of tests, consume a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and are more environmentally aware.
Merrigan also noted the importance of student involvement in campus movements to decrease food waste.
Currently, UC Berkeley is working toward being waste-free by 2020, a plan Merrigan applauded for its emphasis on composting, cost-cutting and food-saving measures.
Forty percent of the food in the United States goes uneaten, which is equivalent to $165 billion each year, according to a National Resources Defense Council report from 2012.
To reduce this type of waste, the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability will reach this goal by taking immediate steps such as expanding food and paper towel-composting to most on-campus buildings and by improving paper, can and bottle recycling rates, according to a 2012 report by the committee.
At Tufts, Merrigan helped launch a food-waste-reduction outreach campaign. To raise awareness and increase student involvement, the campaign created posters featuring well-known students, such as student politicians and athletes, explaining why they bought certain types of food.
She noted that education is key to gaining student support for and involvement in composting, especially when students are busy with their work and studies.
“I can preach to (students), this old rachetty professor, but better to be preached at by your peers and try to get them to buy in,” Merrigan said. “I could only go so far without student demand.”
On Thursday, Merrigan also spoke to an upper-division ESPM class. Later that evening, she gave a talk with Michael Pollan, an author and professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, titled “What’s Next for the Food Movement.”