Vilsack: Inner City ‘Minority’ Child ‘Doesn’t Even Know What a Tomato Is’

By Penny Starr | February 21, 2014 | 4:03pm EST

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at the USDA's annual forum on Feb. 20, 2014 in Northern Virginia. ( Starr)

( – At the USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum on Thursday during a panel discussion about attracting young people to the farming industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked a panelist how she would convince an inner city “minority” child who “doesn’t even know what a tomato is.”

“Emily, I want you to envision an inner city child,” Vilsack said to Emily Oakley, interim director of the National Young Farmer Coalition. “Could be African American, could be Hispanic, could be Native American, Asian, whatever, a minority. You’re talking to that child.

“That child doesn’t even know what a tomato is much less what you are talking about,” Vilsack said. “I want you to convince that kid that he ought to think about farming.”

Oakley replied, “The real issue is how do you get a kid to know what a tomato is” after explaining how best to get kids to know their fruits and vegetables.

“Well, I think most kids, even older teenagers, like to get their hands in the dirt, so I would tell this child or teenager to solicit their school to start a school garden – those are emerging throughout the country,” Oakley said. “They’re a really compelling way for kids to actually see the fruits and vegetables that they’re supposed to eat grow.

“And then when they taste them, they taste awesome, and they’re super excited, because they grew it,” Oakley said.

Oakley also recommended bringing locally or regionally grown foods into schools.

“The real issue is – how do you get a kid to know what a tomato is – if they don’t even know what a tomato is, getting them in touch with a garden? Growing food is a really strong way of making that happen,” Oakley said.

This year’s forum, held in Northern Virginia and entitled “The Changing Face of Agriculture,” featured a wide range of sessions and workshops on topics ranging from “A Roadmap for Women in Agriculture” to “Agriculture Supporting Our Veterans.”

At the event, Vilsack released the preliminary results of the USDA census on agriculture, showing recent trends in farming. That census showed, among other things, that since 1982, 72 million farmland acres has been lost to other uses, a decrease in the number of rural farms, and that the average age of a principal farm operator as of 2012 (the last census) is 58. The full report is due out in the spring.

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