At cocktail parties, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan jokes, "I used to say I work in agriculture policy, and I would be alone in the corner with my gin and tonic."
But during her keynote address at The Atlantic's Food Summit, Merrigan held the audience's attention as she touched on everything from school food reform to the breeding of advanced perennial grains. It was a speech filled with moments of honesty—particularly regarding the challenges of running the USDA in an era of ubiquitous budget cuts—and also striking for what it did not contain: even a single mention of genetically modified crops. Still, it was illuminating. Here are some major themes.
Nutrition, especially childhood nutrition. A predictable focus, given the Obama administration's focus on the issue, especially through Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative. "Ensuring that Americans and particularly Americans children eat well and live healthy lives is among the biggest goals at USDA," Merrigan says, noting that healthy eating was even a major theme at the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll.
"We know there's a lot of work to do. We received about 135,000 comments on our proposal to update nutrition standards to update dietary guidelines to include more whole grains and fruits and less sugars and fats," she says.
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