The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst chatted June 21 with Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture. Read the entire chat on thepacker.com.

10 a.m. Tom Karst: What are you working on now?

Q&A | Kathleen Merrigan, U.S. Department of Agriculture10:01 a.m. Kathleen Merrigan: What’s on my plate, so to speak, is the “half a plate.” The MyPlate icon is giving a great opportunity to talk about increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. … I’ve been really on a campaign as a deputy and as a promoter of fruits and vegetables to get out the word that it is not too expensive to eat healthy. I really came to that because I noticed that it is very ingrained thinking that to increase fruit and vegetable consumption costs more money, so then it becomes this big issue in policy making when you want to promote increased fruit and vegetable consumption. People say, “Oh, what is going to be the attendant costs?” (Consumers) have that notion too, out there. I’m not saying that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is without some struggles and we can talk about those, but the struggle is not about money.

10:07 a.m. Karst: Are you pleased with the reception that MyPlate has received? What types of follow up efforts are planned to promote MyPlate?

10:07 a.m. Merrigan: We have had a very positive reception to MyPlate. … We are about to embark on, over the course of the rest of the year, on seven different marketing campaigns around healthy eating. The first campaign, which starts in September, is going onto be on the “half the plate” for fruits and vegetables. It culminates in December with challenging people to think more about sodium in their food. We have a series of messaging campaigns that the Center for Nutrition Policy will be putting out there which I think will really help people use the MyPlate icon in a bold ways.
… If there ever was ever a time for the produce industry to stand tall and move forward with their agenda, it is now.

10:10 a.m. Karst: You have been quoted about pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. What do you think about the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers’ Guide and references to the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15? Can the USDA do anything more to clarify (the safety of fruits and vegetables) in the minds of consumers?

10:11 a.m. Merrigan: My message has always been more fruits and vegetables. Yes, wash your fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown. We all know we should be washing our fruits and vegetables. I know that people do various things with the pesticide data set in the Pesticide Data Program. … Hopefully our message is coming through loud and clear: Eat more fruits and vegetables. If I come across parents who are concerned, I don’t hesitate at all. I say, we’re all working to reduce inputs in agriculture — farmers more than anyone because they have to pay for them and they are costly. But ultimately the greater good is to increase fruits and vegetable consumption. The science is very clear.