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The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has chosen Michael Funk of United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) and Mark Lipson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to receive its Organic Leadership Awards for 2011.
“Both Michael Funk and Mark Lipson have had a long commitment to the organic movement,” noted said Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of Brattleboro, Vt.-based OTA. “Michael has been instrumental in the growth and advancement of the natural and organic industry for over 30 years, while Mark has demonstrated personal commitment, leadership and vision with regard to advancing organic farming since the early 1980s.”
Funk (left), chairman of the board at Providence, R.I.-based UNFI, will be recognized in the “Growing Organic Industry” category, while Lipson, organic and sustainable agriculture policy advisor in USDA’s Office of the Secretary and Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, will receive the award in the “Growing Organic Agriculture” category. Funk and Lipson will be honored at the Sept. 21 OTA Awards Gala during OTA Member Day activities at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore. At the event, the recipients will be presented with hand-blown glass “planets’ by artist Josh Simpson.
Funk first became involved with organics in the mid-1970s when consumer interest in natural foods was just beginning. His career began in the Sacramento Valley with a grass-roots organic food business aimed at helping the planet and reducing farmers’ use of pesticides. Funk formed Mountain People’s Warehouse (MPW) in 1976, which eventually grew to become the largest natural foods distributor in the western United States. MPW joined forces with another regional distributor in 1996 to form UNFI. Guided by Funk, UNFI and its subsidiaries have grown into an estimated $4.5 billion organization that employs more than 6,500 associates, and distributes about 60,000 products to more than 23,000 customer locations. Even as he oversees a booming business, Funk remains passionate about educating consumers about non-GMO products, pesticide avoidance and supporting local and organic agriculture, and actively assists the organic farming industry through grants, lobbying and outreach.
A nomination letter submitted by a UNFI colleague said: “Michael is truly committed to providing quality natural and organic products to consumers and is a tireless supporter of our industry. … A longtime environmental advocate, his care and stewardship for the environment are evident in the way he lives his own life as well as [his] passion about proactively reducing his carbon footprint. … After many years of growing a successful business, he easily could have retired and enjoyed his good fortune, but instead, [he] chooses every day to actively support, teach and inspire others.”
Lipson has been a member of the Molino Creek Farming Collective in California since 1983, and at one time or another, has performed all of the various roles of farm operations and management. In the mid-1980s he established the statewide office of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and became the organizations first paid employee. During his time there, he spearheaded the development of many of the foundational aspects of organic certification systems, and also played a major part in the passage and implementation of the California Organic Foods Act of 1990 and the national Organic Foods Production Act. Lipson was chairman of the California Organic Food Advisory Board from 1991 to 1997. He joined the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) in1995, where he was policy program director and senior policy analyst until 2010. In 1997 he authored the study “Searching for the O-Word,” which discussed the lack of USDA research support for organic farming systems. The study resulted in OFRF’s creation of the Scientific Congress for Organic Agricultural Research, a national network for producers and scientists pursing the science of organic production and markets.
In June 2010, Lipson joined USDA, where his responsibilities include cross-agency coordination of organic farming policy issues and aiding the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. In his current role, “Mark impacts organic policy on a daily basis. …Always with the organic farmers’ best interests in mind, Mark continues to impact the growing organic industry that he helped to create,” according to a nomination letter submitted by OFRF executive director Maureen Wilmot.