Extension agents — usually associated with helping farmers behind the scenes — sometimes do get out front on public policy. And when they do, it’s with such a light touch it’s hardly noticed. But it’s highly effective. A generation ago, South Dakota State University Extension helped lay the groundwork for a new state constitution by “educating” voters on seven amendments that completely reworked the old document. About two weeks before she stepped down from her position as U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan spent cold February days in South Dakota warming up those SDSU Extension agents and others in a six-state “Voices for Food” campaign. Merrigan, known as an advocate for local and organic food and women in agriculture, was second-in-command to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at USDA from 2009 to April 2013. Her departure was well-scripted, but struck many as abrupt. She did, however, put many things in motion during her tenure. “Voices for Food” came on the later end. SDSU Extension markets itself as “ South Dakota’s source of un-biased, vetted, and relevant new knowledge generated from research.” Survey research regularly shows extension agents are respected sources of information in rural states. Their image is entirely opposite that portrayed by Alvy Moore’s character on CBS’s Green Acres in the late 1960s: the flip but forgetful Hank Kimball, county agent. As one of her last acts, Merrigan’s “Voices for Food” program is going to tap into this network through a six-state grant of $4 million administrated by SDSU. Along with Michigan State, Purdue, Nebraska, Missouri, and Ohio State, the “Voices for Food” program will be picking out rural communities in each of those states and setting up “food policy councils” for the purpose of moving toward more healthy food choices. Food policy councils, of course, are not new, but are generally more associated with urban areas. And “food deserts” are usually located in cities, but more than half of South Dakota’s counties are ten miles or more from the nearest grocery store. “Millions of American households lack the resources to access sufficient food, and many of those, including our children, may go hungry at least once this year,” said Merrigan when she announced the project. She said the purpose of “Voices for Food” is to help people understand the food and nutritional needs of low-income communities and improve the nation’s agricultural productivity. The $4 million “Voices for Food” grant was just part of a $75 million package that USDA announced for the nation’s land-grant universities. Others include such assignments as Purdue working on ear rot disease in corn and the University of Tennessee taking on improving the dairy industry in the Southeast. The grants are awarded on a competitive basis and went to 21 universities. In South Dakota, most of the “Voices for Food” manpower will come from SDSU Extension. Barry Dunn, dean of SDSU’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, said the goal is to “find solutions that give everyone access to affordable and nutritional food.” According to SDSU’s Suzanne Stluka, who is managing the five-year project, in the first years the plan is to bring key people to the table and persuade them to come to agreement on initiatives that they will promote in the communities.