The Future of Food Law: A Conversation with Kathleen Merrigan (With Margo Pollans)

By Jame Virga
Sponsored by GrowNYC, the Pace-NRDC Food Law Initiative event was hosted at Project Farmhouse, a state-of-the-art sustainability center and event space that had finished being built a week prior, located around the corner from Union Square. Before the event kicked off, guests were able to admire a display of recently planted hydroponic wall, while sampling delicious locally grown vegetables and hors d’oeuvres.

The event kicked off with a brief introduction from the Director of GrowNYC’s, Marcel Dumoine, and NRDC’s Mark Izeman. Both highly praised the collaboration between Pace’s Food Law program and NRDC, which had not only produced this particular event, but most importantly resulted in the first food law clinic in the nation of its kind. With the inequities and injustices surrounding the area of food law, both applauded this collaborative initiative as a needed remedy.

For the main event, Professor Margo Pollans, of the Elisabeth Haub School of Law, moderated a Q&A style lecture with Kathleen Merrigan, the previous Deputy Secretary of the USDA. The result was an insightful glimpse into the future of food law. A fair portion of the conversation focused on the current political landscape and how the current administration may impact laws and regulations regarding food law and the related administrative oversight tasked with their enforcement. With a new administration, Merrigan pursued an optimistic approach.

Merrigan started off by half-jokingly stating how upset she has been with the lack of attention given to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in spite of the fact that it is first alphabetically. Regarding the presidential appointment, she does not anticipate that the proposed Secretary of Agriculture and former Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue, will face many obstacles in his confirmation hearing. Yet, that does not mean that Merrigan believes Perdue will not face any challenges once he is in office. In fact, through George Washington University’s Food Institute (of which she is the director), Merrigan outlined 10 challenges that he will face “when he walks into his office”. They can be found here:

Aside from the Secretary of Agriculture, Merrigan forewarned of the other 17 positions that must be filled before an updated Farm Bill could be rolled out. Yet, she shared that there was a scientific component to the passing of a new Farm Bill, one that she has recently hypothesized. In light of the previous Farm Bill that was two years late, Merrigan observed Farm Bills are passed during “even years”, and due to Congress’ two-year rotation, she believes it is generally hard to pass a farm bill in an “odd year”. As a result, she hypothesizes that the updated Farm Bill will be rolled out in either 2018 or 2020, hoping for the former.

When asked about why New Yorkers should care about the USDA and “what they do”, she responded with a well articulated three-prong answer, saying that USDA’s “nutrition assistance programs”, its forest services, and the growing focus on “urban agriculture” were just a few reasons that New Yorkers in particular should take interest in the (agency). Yet, the heart of her answer sought to deliver a message – we need more conversations like this. In order to effectively garner support behind protective laws and regulations in an effort to save our planet, we need to initiative these new conversations.

Overall, the conversation consisted of well-articulated questions that elicited insightful predictions. Merrigan discussed the SNAP program and potentially removing soda from SNAP eligibility, the dietary guidelines in regards to sustainability, and the importance of federalism, especially within today’s political landscape. Looking forward, she hopes to create more intelligent and political dialogue regarding rural development, which has been mistakenly overlooked. She also is very excited about the future of perennials and their ability to replace annual crops.


A recording of lecture can be found here:




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