Is the USDA setting a new course for our food system?

The New Compass

by Alicia Harvie

The New Compass

Traeger di Pietro

The USDA’s Know Your Farmer Compass covers seven themes that incorporate infrastructure, land stweardship, access and education about healthy, local food.  

In 2009, a brand new Obama Administration launched an initiative called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF). Led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the initiative’s aim was to strengthen the connection between farmers and consumers while addressing important national goals like rural revitalization, job creation, and improved public health.

It was enough to make any food activist’s ears perk up, particularly after decades of government support for giant agribusinesses, industrial farming practices and nutritionally-challenged food products.

But the KYF initiative was fraught with controversy from the get-go. Supporters were excited by its symbolic tip of the hat to the kind of reforms they were seeking. Yet, they were skeptical of the effort, noting that the initiative wasn’t allocated any full-time staff or budget, and that it showcased existing programs at USDA and other federal agencies without pushing for new funding from Congress.

Opponents, meanwhile, felt threatened. Shifting the spotlight to farmers’ markets, smaller farms, local food systems, and the like was perceived as a critique of the status quo. Several Congressmen claimed KYF was a waste of energy, elitist, and an inappropriate use of government money, and that most Americans don’t and never will eat local food. Some moved to publicly humiliate the USDA officials guiding the program and even tried obstructing its existence through legislation.

To no avail, it seems.

The work continued on, with a flashy website and friendly blog highlighting case studies of farmers and communities putting lesser-known USDA programs to use. Programs include the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, which funds farmers and ranchers who process or market their goods in a way that adds value to their businesses. Or the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which offers low-income seniors coupons that can be used to purchase produce at farmers’ markets, farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, and other direct markets. These programs are rarely covered by the media, yet have more appeal to the general public than crop subsidies or trade policies—items often too heady or obscure for most Americans.

A new direction?

More recently, the USDA unveiled (with great fanfare through a White House-sponsored “virtual chat”) the KYF Compass—an interactive site that more fully displays the benefits of local and regional agriculture and what the USDA is doing to support it. Complete with a lengthy report and an interactive map, the Compass covers seven themes: local food infrastructure, stewardship and local food, local meat and poultry, farm to institution, healthy food access, careers in agriculture, and local food knowledge.

The goal is to communicate how important these programs are. The USDA has gone through great pains to make the business case for KYF, committing agency research efforts to documenting the economic value of local and regional markets, the boost to public health efforts, and the appeal the food movement holds for the next generation of farmers.

Surely, the USDA is also aware of the tool’s potential to bridge the country’s urban- rural divide. After all, the agency that Abraham Lincoln affectionately dubbed “The People’s Department,” has become increasingly foreign to Americans, most of whom no longer farm (only around 2 million do) and hail from suburban or urban areas. Yet, 40 percent of farms now exist in metropolitan counties, while urban farms themselves continue to sprout up in major cities across the country.

With the line between rural and urban becoming blurrier than ever, the political significance of the Compass’s main feature— a map of the country, heavily dotted with layers of data about USDA programs, the presence of farmers’ markets, and even Congressional districts—should not be lost. After getting slammed with (mostly undue) Congressional scrutiny in this belt tightening budget era, it is as if the USDA is screaming, Hey, this work matters!

Does it matter?

For anyone concerned about the state of our food systems, the Compass should be at once inspiring and deeply disturbing. Inspiring, of course, because we should hope that it’s just the start. Even with the pithy support it has received to date, KYF has done a ton to raise the profile of good food and validate consumer support for family farmers. It has paired nicely with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and the ascent of food celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan, helping the public understand that there is a direct link between the state of our farms and the size of our waistlines.

But the work is deeply disturbing because, after four years of governing, it’s almost all the agency has to show for a more progressive food and farm agenda. That’s not a knock on anyone at USDA, more a comment on how extraordinarily difficult it is to effect change in Washington D.C.’s cutthroat political machinery.

Collectively, the many programs featured under the KYF umbrella, though significant, are dwarfed by the billions of dollars that buttress our corporate-dominated food system. What’s more, most of them will be targeted for steep cuts in the Farm Bill negotiations taking place this fall, meaning all the good work of KYF could be swiftly unraveled.

But we shouldn’t lose hope. It’s essential that we support this work, both at the national scale and in our communities where local and regional food systems are taking root. After all, it’s no small feat that the White House fully backed the KYF Compass. A White House official expressed astonishment at the public response they received during the tool’s launch via Twitter this February. “I don’t think we’ve ever had this type of participation before,” he stated. “Keep tweeting!”

Now clocking in at 150 years old, the giant ship that is the USDA may be steering itself back towards the roots of its People’s Department moniker. But whether it stays there for good is as much up to us as it is the bigwigs in Congress.