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Kathleen Merrigan: The woman changing sustainable food systems

Agricultural policy and sustainability are being shaped by Kathleen Merrigan, professor and executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems

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"Kathleen Merrigan is committed to creating a world where sustainable food systems are a reality."

Kathleen Merrigan is a professor at ASU and the executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, whose work focuses on expanding sustainable food access and student involvement in its policies. 

During her career, she has spent roughly an equal number of years in academia and government service, serving as the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2013. While there, she handled $150 billion in budgets and 110,000 employees.

"Behind every secretary, there is a deputy, and they are the ones that are tasked with managing the department in a lot of ways," Merrigan said. "Where the secretaries have a lot of the policy priorities, the deputies are the executors."

In 2010, Merrigan was celebrated by TIME magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World

Merrigan recalled being told to “go and do great things" when she was recruited by Brian and Kelly Swette to head the Center in 2018. Almost in her fifth year at ASU, Merrigan has already established multiple degree programs for sustainable food systems, which ASU lacked before.

"Now we have a Bachelors of Science in sustainable food systems, a minor in sustainable food systems, a Masters of Science in sustainable food systems, a graduate one-year certificate in food policy and sustainability leadership and an accelerated masters program," Merrigan said. "We have 141 students right now, but we’re growing quickly. And at the graduate level, I’ve given out over $600,000 of financial aid that we’ve raised."

Nicholas Benard is a graduate student studying sustainable food systems who currently works with Merrigan as a grad service assistant at the Swette Center.

"I liked Kathleen’s program because she wrote the organic certification into law. She’s had skin in the game. She’s done a lot of work, she’s not just a theorist," Benard said. "Getting into the program has really impacted my life."

Jane Coghlan graduated last year as a sustainable food systems major and currently works as a research specialist at the Swette Center.

"Just as a professor she really encouraged my ideas and passions within the sustainable food systems realm and that was hard to find at first," Coghlan said. "She was a really great listener and helped us create really cool conversations in class where we could learn from each other’s perspectives."

Throughout her career, Merrigan believes the biggest lesson she's learned is that policy matters.

"We are in a time where we know that we need to transform our food systems to be more equitable, more resilient," Merrigan said. "I think policy is where we really need to focus, and we need more people who understand the policy-making process and how it relates to food and agriculture."

In October 2022, the Swette Center released the "Grow Organic: The Climate, Health and Economic Case for Expanding Organic Agriculture" report. Co-authored by Merrigan, the report shares stories from organic farmers and ranchers to exemplify organic agriculture's effect on the environment, public health and the economy. 

The report details that only 6% of food sold in the U.S. is certified organic. New policies that expand the availability of organic foods and introduce programs that support it would restore climate, public and ecological health and farming community economies.

"I really appreciate her guidance, and it's comforting to know that when I part from the Swette Center and go to graduate school or get a new job, I feel like I’ll always have her to go back to and catch up with," Coghlan said.

Merrigan is committed to creating a world where sustainable food systems are a reality, and students are able to contribute to creating a better future.

"She doesn’t stop thinking how can she make things better," Benard said.

Edited by Annie Graziano, Jasmine Kabiri and Caera Learmonth.

Reach the reporter at and follow @brenngauchat on Twitter. 

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