I had the chance on June 21 to chat with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

 10:00 a.m. Tom Karst: What are you working on now?

 10:01 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. My particular role, I suppose, I’ve described as a myth buster. My daughter, who is 12, really likes that show (Mythbusters on Discovery Channel) and I thought that I would soar in her eyes if I became a myth buster too. 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.

 10:04 a.m.  Karst: Part of what the USDA wants to do with revising school nutrition standards is increasing the fruits and vegetables served at school meals. That will require more money, won’t it?

 10:05 a.m. Merrigan: It requires a lot of things, but my experience going around the country visiting school lunch programs is that it doesn’t track as well as you might think with the socio-economic status of communities. So much depends on engaged local leadership in transforming those school meals.  I’ve gone to the poorest of poor schools and seen lunches prepared there that are by far superior to the lunches served in my children’s school in well-heeled Chevy Chase, Md.  With the new legislation that passed in the fall, when schools adhere to the new guidelines they are going to get the first real non-inflationary increase in a very,  very long time for the school meals - 6 cent per meals.  That alone won’t do it.  It is really about changing how we think about food, how we think about that plate and engaging our school meals personally and our parents into the march forward that our First Lady has called us to do in terms of “Let’s Move.” Let’s move on our diets and change things.

 We have this great report that I cite all the time that our Economic Research Service put out in 2010 where they looked at the cost of fruits and vegetables.  If you want to have raspberries in January, that will cost you $2 per cup. But there are a lot of vegetables and fruits that are really healthy that will cost 20 cents a cup. On average, fruits and vegetables cost about 50 cents per cup, so our estimate is that people, even within a food stamp budget, can meet that half a plate challenge and eat much healthier.

They can actually save money by eating healthier, and that’s the message I’m trying to get that across because we’re using cost as an excuse not to change.

 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. You know it is based on signaling theory, and so it is a visual prompt to get people to eat healthy. So there some discussions as to whether the actual slices are a representation of the exact amount of food that you need to eat, and we’re engaged in those conversations. MyPlate certainly has to be out there along with a number of nutritional messages. 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. Let me just say that people are somewhat relieved that we have gotten out of the pyramid mode. The pyramid is still there to help people. We’re not saying that pyramid is bad and you can’t use it anymore, but MyPlate has galvanized people to think about the half a plate concept in a way that we haven’t seen people think about it before. I’m hoping that all of our partners and stakeholders can seize this moment.

We’ve got a first lady who is dancing her way around the countryside, saying “Let’s Move.” We’ve got this new “healthy kids” legislation that Congress passed, and we have this new icon that says half a late (for fruits and vegetables). 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 thing the way 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: USDA has been consistent over the years, and particularly I as an individual have been consistent. In my eight years before coming to this job I was a university professor at Tufts in Boston. You know how university professors are- they can say whatever they like. Throughout the years, I have always been consistent on this topic. People have always asked me, what do you shop for? What you feed your kids? Are you willing to feed them this that and the other thing? 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.

I think it is a very important program that provides us with longitudinal data gives us a picture over time in terms of how our programs are working at EPA and FDA.

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.