Politics & Government

Merrigan, Agriculture Dept. No. 2, touts nutrition during California visit

On her first trip as the nation's No. 2 agriculture official, Kathleen Merrigan made clear that the Obama administration's commitment to nutrition isn't going to stop with the White House's new vegetable garden.

"We have a president and a first lady who are personally very interested in health and diet and very compelled by the childhood obesity crisis," Merrigan said Wednesday morning at the University of California, Davis, as she started a two-day visit to the region.

The nutrition emphasis has the state's farm groups smiling. Compared with other states, California's agriculture leans heavily to fruits, nuts and vegetables – crops that would get a boost from, for instance, new mandates on fresh foods in school lunches.

"We look at that as a great opportunity," said Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers, a major produce-industry group.

The focus on health – and the warm reception from the state's mainstream farm sector – also fills out the picture of Merrigan. Her nomination as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February made news mainly because she's a longtime champion of organic farming, a sector that has gotten little attention from the agency.

As a congressional staffer two decades ago, Merrigan helped craft the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which launched federal oversight of the sector. Last week, she pledged to integrate organic foods into the USDA's operations.

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