Log Lunch with Bernie Kluger '94, Senior Advisor to the US Secretary of Agriculture: Food Systems and Climate Change: Are We Losing Ground?

On Friday, January 19, amidst the freezing cold temperatures outside, the Log Lunch community gathered to eat some delicious warm food prepared by the student cooks. With a menu consisting of coconut eggplant curry, chapati (flatbread), aloo gobi (spiced potato + cauliflower), mint chutney, a beet and cucumber salad, jeera rice, and pistachio shortbread cookies with raspberry jam, stomachs were full when Bernie Kluger ‘94 started his talk. Bernie came to speak about the US Department of Agriculture and his own role in food systems transformation as Senior Advisor to Secretary Tom Vilscack. Note: Bernie came to speak at Log Lunch in his own personal capacity, and not on behalf of the Department of Agriculture or the federal government.  

After graduating as a Political Economy major from Williams in 1994, Bernie started out his career in elementary education. He enjoyed his time in youth education, but eventually moved into higher education, and then education consulting. From there, Bernie moved into various positions within the Obama and Biden administrations, with as a general manager of a community solar non-profit   in between. In 2022, after nearly a decade of work in government, Bernie received the call to be the Senior Advisor for Management for Tom Vilscack, the US Secretary of Agriculture. All throughout this time, he was working to improve the effectiveness of federal administrations and elevate the role of socioeconomically disadvantaged small businesses, normally overlooked by the federal government, in its undertakings. At the USDA in particular, which he explained as having done many problematic things in the past such as excluding people of color from the agency and its benefits for farmers and  contributing to the dispossession of Indigenous people from their lands, Bernie has worked to holistically transform the food system and address past and current inequities. 

Through $40 billion in funding from the Biden Administration, Bernie and the USDA have a goal of completely transforming the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed. Through this holistic approach, the food system extends beyond simply producing food effectively and efficiently, but also ensuring that it is local, sustainable, and equitable. Farming is not easy, and has been quite costly for the majority of farmers over the last few decades, so creating programs that support low-income and minority farmers has been a USDA priority. Bernie explained that large agricultural producers won’t be able to change their practices overnight, but creating federal programs that incentivize climate-smart farming at all scales will be another positive step towards reaching the overarching goal of food systems transformation. Creating a fair and equitable society that is capable of mitigating or reversing climate change hinges on farmers, so Bernie’s job is ultimately ensuring that they can live dignified lives.