Stories / Impact, Awards

Meet JBF Leadership Award Winner Dr. Kathleen Merrigan

Jamie Feldmar

Jamie Feldmar

October 04, 2012


Dr. Kathleen Merrigan

Our 2012 James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards are just around the corner! On October 17 we’ll gather at New York City’s iconic Hearst Tower to recognize these five visionaries for their outstanding contributions to creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world:

Wendell Berry
Farmer, Poet, and Author, Lanes Landing Farm

Dr. Jason Clay
Senior Vice President, Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tensie Whelan
President, Rainforest Alliance

Malik Yakini
Executive Director, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

To get the ball rolling, we’d like to introduce you to the inspiring group of honorees we’ll be celebrating. In the coming days, we’ll tell you about each one of the JBF Leadership Award recipients. Today we’d like to introduce you to:

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture

When President Obama appointed Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary of agriculture under Tom Vilsack in 2009, it was a watershed moment for advocates of sustainable food. As many farmers, environmentalists, and politicians know, Merrigan has spent her career championing the rights of sustainable farmers.

Merrigan’s accomplishments on the policy front are myriad: she authored the 1990 law that defined the standards for organically grown foods in the U.S.; was instrumental in the launch of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative in 2009; and strongly advocates moving federal farm policies toward conservation and sustainable land use. She was also the director of the Center on Agriculture, Food and Environment at Tufts University in Boston, where she taught and wrote extensively about strategies to encourage sustainable agriculture. Few people can navigate the relationship between farmers and politicians more nimbly than Merrigan.   

Those who know her are in awe of her ability to balance the interests of so many parties. “She works from all sides, in a very genuine and very transparent way, because she cares so deeply about the issues,” says Debra Eschmeyer, 2011 JBF Leadership Award honoree and co-founder and director of policy and partnerships at FoodCorps, who has worked with Merrigan on farm-to-school initiatives. “She has taken so much time to build relationships within the USDA, and that’s no easy task. She will go down in history as a legendary champion of making a large bureaucracy impactful.”

Merrigan, who grew up in western Massachusetts farm country, says her philosophy is influenced by both a concern for the environment and what she describes as “an attraction to the underdog—and trying to help them get the due they deserve.”  Working with farmers, academics, and politicians is just part of the equation. Merrigan is also dedicated to making sure the public understands and takes advantage of the full benefit of the agency’s resources. She has added tools and resources to the USDA website that “bring a level of transparency to what the government is doing that is probably unheralded,” she says.

Despite her political accomplishments, Merrigan still cites her tenure at Tufts as her biggest accomplishment. “There is nothing more rewarding for me than being a professor and seeing my students go out and do incredible things in the field. No matter how great an individual’s contributions, you’re still one person, so it’s more about how you can reach others. It’s about committing to your passion and taking on the challenges surrounding food and agriculture, so if there’s any legacy from my lifetime’s work, I hope it’s that there are young people to carry it on,” she says.

Merrigan’s sustainability-minded approach is already inspiring a whole new generation of advocates. “Kathleen is really a role model for how to work effectively in government,” says Eschmeyer. “To me, she is the definition of what a public servant should be—open and engaging, informed, and truly a tremendous ally for all of those working in food and agriculture.” – Jamie Feldmar

About the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards

The 2012 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. This year’s honorees were chosen by an advisory board comprised of a dozen experts from diverse areas of expertise, as well as last year’s Leadership Award recipients. Now in its second year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners will be honored at a dinner ceremony that will take place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 17 in New York City. For more information, visit