New York City: Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was honored with the James Beard Foundation's 2012 Leadership Award on Wednesday night, cited for her longtime work on sustainable food systems and in particular for leading her agency's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. Also honored for visionary achievement during the Foundation's gala dinner in the penthouse of the Hearst Tower were world renowned farmer and author Wendell Berry; Dr. Jason Clay, Senior Vice President Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund; Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance; and Malik Yakini, Executive Director, The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. (Above: Merrigan with award presenter Debra Eschmeyer, a 2011 JBF honoree)
Best known for presenting America's top chefs with the annual "Oscars of the food world," under the leadership of president Susan Ungaro, JBF has expanded its focus to extend well beyond the dinner plate to include the entire food system. The dinner capped the first day of JBF's sustainable food conference, first launched in 2010 as a one-day test pilot. This year the conference brought together more than 150 activists, academics, food system professionals, representatives from non-profits and chefs for two days of panel discussions on Oct. 17 and 18. The theme was A Crisis in Confidence: Creating a Better, More Sustainable Food World We Can Trust.
White House Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass was at the dinner to present Wendell Berry with his JBF award, and Kass spoke on Thursday during a panel session at the conference, discussing First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. Mrs. Obama was among the 2011 honorees for JBF's inaugural round of Leadership Awards, cited for her efforts to unify the nation around healthy food initiatives. (Above: Kass with Berry at the dinner)
Merrigan, 53, was presented with her award by 2011 JBF Leadership honoree Debra Eschmeyer, co-founder of the non-profit FoodCorps, which brings young adults into underserved areas around the nation for a wide array of food related projects. Eschmeyer noted that before Merrigan joined USDA, she taught at Tufts University where she influenced a generation of students who are now working on sustainable projects.
"There are Merriganistas everywhere," Eschmeyer said.
The Secretary said as she accepted her award that she became interested in agriculture as a child when her family moved to western Massachusetts and lived next to a farm. She has long worked at the federal level, including during the 1990s for USDA, when she led the efforts to develop organic standards. She said her current major challenge is developing the next generation of farmers, and told Obama Foodorama that last week she had her 33rd visit to a university to speak with students about America's food system and opportunities for engagement.
"Less than one percent of Americans farm," Merrigan said. "And the opportunities for the next generation are unlimited."
Among the Deputy Secretary's many other awards is being on the 2010 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.
JBF also a sponsor of the State Department's new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. Launched in September at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the project includes an American Chef Corps from across the United States who have agreed to serve as resources for the Department of State. The White House chefs, including Kass, are among the inaugural class of chefs.
As a side note, almost every chef who has visited the White House since the beginning of the Obama Administration has been either a JBF honoree or nominee. New York restaurateur and cookbook author Marcus Samulesson, who served as guest chef for President Obama's first State Dinner, and Chicago restaurateur and cookbook author Rick Bayless, a JBF Board member who served as guest chef for the second State Dinner, both led panels during the conference. Chef Michel Nischan, who leads the Wholeseome Wave foundation, and has been a major partner for the Let's Move! campaign, was also at the conference and dinner.
Like his boss, Kass is obsessed with basketball, and as he presented Berry with the Leadership Award, he likened meeting the Kentucky farmer for the first time to "meeting Michael Jordan." Berry has written more than 50 books of essays, poems, and fiction, and farms in Port Royal, Kentucky. The President awarded Berry the National Humanities Medal in 2011, citing him for "for his achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer, and conservationist." Berry, now 78, first met Kass during a 2009 visit to the White House to tour Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden.
The dinner itself of course spotlighted culinary creativity, and was orchestrated by chefs Jeremy Barlow, owner of Tayst in Nashville, Tenn. and Jeremy Bearman, owner of Rouge Tomate in Manhattan. The two chefs met while attending at JBF "food policy boot camp," another program offered by the foundation. JBF award winner John Besh served as emcee. (Above: Berry and Merrigan)
The Foundation's conference and awards were sponsored by Good Housekeeping, with support provided by EDENS, GRACE Communications Foundation, and Sodexo.
Visit JamesBeard.org to view videos of panels sessions from the conference; click here for full bios of the honorees.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama