Kathleen Merrigan: Produce myth busterProduce is too pricey? No way, says Kathleen Merrigan.

Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, believes she can play the role of a myth buster when it comes to policymaker and consumer perceptions that fruits and vegetables are too expensive.

“I’ve been really on a campaign as deputy and as a promoter of fruits and vegetables to get out the word that it is not too expensive to eat healthy,” she said.

Merrigan said she often mentions in interviews that she shops on the perimeter of supermarkets, to the displeasure of her colleagues in the processed food industry.

“But that’s where I spend the majority of my food dollar, and it is a very good value nutritionally,” she said. “So we are trying to get that word out the best way we can.”

Merrigan said there is “very ingrained thinking” that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption costs more money.

When food policy is being discussed in Washington, she said that issue is often the objection raised when efforts are put forward to promote increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

“People say, ‘Oh what is going to be the attendant costs?’” Merrigan said.

Consumers also have that perception, she said.

“We are really trying to get the message out, and we are talking numbers, because it is a real challenge,” she said.

Industry-friendly remarks by Merrigan, who also has been quoted supporting increased fruit and vegetable consumption in media reports about the Environmental Working Groups’ Dirty Dozen list of produce with pesticide residues, haven’t gone unnoticed by industry leaders.

Members of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s government affairs staff met with Merrigan on June 22.

Kathleen Merrigan: Produce myth buster“We wanted to thank her for her support of the produce industry, and in particular her efforts at debunking the idea that fresh produce is too expensive,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public relations for PMA.

Means said Merrigan recently appeared on CNN talking about the affordability of fruits and vegetables, citing both USDA and PMA studies that found consumers could eat recommended levels of fruits and vegetable for less than $2.50 per day.

Much work has to be done to change consumer perceptions, Means said. A recent PMA survey indicated 55% of consumers believe expense is a barrier to more fruit and vegetable consumption, she said.

“We know this is an issue and that it is not founded in fact,” Means said.

MyPlate progress

Merrigan said she is pleased with public reception to the MyPlate icon. That icon, with its “half a plate” message, combined with increased funding for school lunches, the ongoing Let’s Move campaign and revised school nutrition guidelines, appear to set the stage for greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, she said.

“If there ever was ever a time for the produce industry to stand tall and move forward with their agenda, it is now,” Merrigan said.

Another misperception Merrigan involves the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Imitative.

In its June 16 passage of the 2012 agricultural appropriations bill, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved an amendment that prohibits funds from being used for the initiative.

Merrigan said that lawmakers shouldn’t find fault with what she called a management initiative.

“I was mystified by the debate on the House floor because clearly I need to message better on some of these management initiatives,” she said.

Merrigan said both the Healthy Food Financing Initiative — which has not yet been funded by Congress — and Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food are meant to cut across the department bureaucracy.

Merrigan said Know Your Farmer has no office, no full-time staff and no budget.

“It is about efficiencies and breaking down government silos,” she said.

For example, in school food procurement, three agencies can be involved in setting the rules and buying commodities.

Means said the industry believes the USDA’s initiative can be helpful as long as it does not promote one type of producer over another.

“It can’t make distinction of small versus big, or organic versus conventional,” Means said. “It is going to take everybody to get to half a plate.”