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Commencement Speech

Hamburger Helper

Commencement Address
By Kathleen Merrigan (MPAff '87)
LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas
May 20, 2011

One of my early trips as Deputy Secretary brought me to a rural Western state to visit a slaughter facility that produced, among other things, significant quantities of hamburger meat. I was shocked by what I saw. Not by the actual slaughter itself, as I have visited many plants and am quite familiar with the goings on, having evaluated the food safety, humane treatment, and meat grading components of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s work.

Rather I was shocked by what this visit revealed about our food system. Frozen boxes of beef trim – parts of beef cattle left over after carving out the finer cuts, were being shipped to this rural town from the other side of the world, from Australia and New Zealand. Once at the plant, these boxes of beef trim were thawed, and then mixed and ground together with fat from U.S. cattle. At the end of the line, a label was adhered to the hamburger, proclaiming it “freshly ground.”

Although the product was safe, perfectly legal, and maybe even yummy, it just didn’t seem right. Labeled this way, consumers would likely assume that they were buying something fresh, as in just off the local farm, not previously frozen meat from the other side of the world. The life cycle assessment – the sustainability of shipping this meat across 8,000 miles couldn’t be good. What was going on with our food system that made this a profitable and desirable enterprise?

I run into those questions all the time in my job. Even as Deputy, the penultimate point in my career, I find things not as I would like. After years of working to improve agriculture through better policy, we still have a long way to go.

But I do see progress. In the realm of agriculture, people are more interested than ever in where their food come from, how it was produced, they want to know their farmer and they are asking critical questions like never before. You may not have expected to hear about hamburger in a commencement speech, but as students of public policy, you know what I mean when I say, this is a policy window.

And when that policy window opens, for however long, you have to have solutions at the ready. In the years I taught public policy, I found that my students would turn in papers that brilliantly described and documented problems, but their attention to crafting solutions was insufficient.  I finally instituted a rule that at least one third of the assignment had to be solution oriented.

Not only is it difficult to devise workable solutions, but you must believe that it’s possible to come up with them.

Friends have asked me, what’s your message for the graduates? Well, here it is.  This address follows along tradition – challenging you to change the world. Sometimes, you just have to go with the classic.

24 years ago, I crossed this stage empowered by what I learned.  It was a different time then, sure.  Few of us had our own computers; there was no e-mail, no cell phones. I was shopping for dresses for my post-LBJ career in the U.S. Senate where women were not allowed to wear pants. But many things were the same. The Gramm Rudman Hollings balanced budget amendment had passed and our country was engaged in a roaring debate over how to control the federal budget deficit and severely cutting back on Federal spending. Posse East, Schultz’s Garden and the Hole in the Wall were there, and Ladybird’s bluebonnets dotted the scene.

I packed up my bags, went to Washington, and started my new life with Barbara Jordan’s powerful, moral voice reverberating in my head. Thanks to former Secretary of Labor and LBJ School professor, Ray Marshall, our graduates all knew how to write a dense, action-packed policy memo that never exceeded 2 pages. Like all of you, I left this stage carrying important skills in statistics and policy analysis.

I know the value of the LBJ education. What an outstanding institution . . . . remarkable faculty . . . . gifted students . . . . a loyal alumni network. Over its 40 year history, this great school and its cadre of leaders have made a difference in this country and around the world and inspired other to take up the challenge.

I wonder what it is, that each of you will do? What mark will you leave upon this world? Never doubt your ability and be prepared to take on the task even when success seems unlikely.

Just two years after graduation, while working in the Senate, I had a visit from an organic farmer who asked for my help in getting a federal law passed to establish national standards for organic food. No one took him seriously, in his jeans, unaccompanied by a well-heeled lobbyist. Organic agriculture was considered, as former Senator Bob Kerrey described it, hippy dippy agriculture. As my colleagues on the agriculture committee were wined and dined by their constituent groups, I quietly set to work.

Have a sympathetic boss in Senator Patrick Leahy, I was able to write a bill that became law in 1990. Nearly 10 years later, when it got bogged down in implementation, I became an administrator in the Clinton administration and oversaw the writing of implementing regulations. To this day, I am working to improve the National Organic Program. And that farmer who came to visit me 20 years ago – he’s now working at the USDA and we’ve set a goal to increase the number of organic farmers by 25% in this Administration.

Every time I go into the grocery and see that organic seal, or visit with the tens of thousands of organic farmers, or see studies that point to organic as the fastest growing segment of American agriculture, I know that I helped make that happen.

Last year when Time magazine called to say I had been chosen as one of their “Time 100 Most Influential People” with the likes of President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and  Lady Gaga, I was dumbfounded. Actually, I thought it was someone pulling a joke on me, and I initially didn’t return the call. Come on! But it was true, and while I was dancing to the music of Prince aside Taylor Swift at the New York City gala, I celebrated the fact that years of wonky policy work do matter, and all of us can be a star in our own way.

Again, I ask: How will you make your mark? Policymakers are puzzle masters. We work to fit together politics, economics, natural resource constraints, social justice, and scientific knowledge to create a coherent and compelling picture that drives policy development. It’s an iterative process, requiring persistence, patience, compassion, and lots of hard work. Above all, it requires optimism.

You have to believe in yourself, and you have to believe in your ability to change the world.

One in three children born after the year 2000 is expected to develop type II diabetes in their lifetime, if food trends don’t change. 18 million children in this country are food insecure. Obesity rates are skyrocketing. Does that discourage our First Lady Michelle Obama from taking on one of the most challenging, complex issues of our time? Not at all. She is dancing her way around this country inspiring communities to come together and shed thousands of pounds. She is working with the USDA to improve school meals and increase fruit and vegetable consumption. She saw a tough, seemingly intractable problem, and she said: “Lets Move.”

As for that hamburger problem, I’m still working on that puzzle. We’re investing in mobile slaughter units to help small farmers provide the necessary infrastructure for local food systems. We’re re-evaluating our labeling laws to make sure consumers get what they pay for. The thing about policy – is that it’s always a work in progress. It’s an evolving, dynamic field. Have you heard the latest? Scientists are now at work, growing cloned hamburger meat in a test tube – I haven’t figured out what I think of that yet and the likely policy challenges it will present.

So go out there with dreams, join your talented classmates and change the world.

By the way, my chief of staff, an LBJ classmate. USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, an LBJ School classmate. The first time I had to go to a meeting in the Situation Room at the White House, where I was flanked by generals and I was incredibly nervous, I looked up and across the table I was greeted by the smiling, reassuring face of, you guess it, an LBJ School classmate.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you are in good company.

And there could be no better time than this, to be optimistic and embrace change. As our President has said:

“Believing that change is possible is not the same as being naïve. Go into service with your eyes wide open, for change will not come easily. On the big issues that our nation faces, difficult choices await. We’ll have to face some hard truths, and some sacrifice will be required, not only from you individually, but from the nation as a whole. There is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service – one blow again injustice – to set forth what Robert Kennedy called that ‘tiny ripple of hope.’  That’s what changes the world.” That one act, an act by you: Class of 2011.  Congratulations graduates!