Today, most of us see “local” as shorthand for fresh, delicious food that comes with a story attached — and that serves an alternative to consolidated, anonymous, commodity-based farming. But that hasn’t always been how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sees it.

USDA is known for creating, subsidizing, and promoting industrial agriculture. So the agency’s effort to dip its toes into the local food movement in 2009 with its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program (KYF2) raised eyebrows and questions. Could USDA really help create a thriving bottom-up food system? Or would it spread the term local, and the ethos behind it, so thin as to make it meaningless?

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food essentially re-packaged and highlighted government programs that support and promote the development of local farmers and ranchers. The funds it made available are a drop in the bucket (at a few hundred million dollars, spread across 27 programs run by nine different agencies that support local food efforts in some way) when compared to the tens of billions the USDA puts toward the “Big Five” commodity crops — corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and rice.

But that didn’t make it insignificant. In fact, as KYF2 appeared in 2009, former Grist food editor Tom Philpott admitted to feeling cautiously optimistic about the effort. He wrote:

… it’s remarkable and to my knowledge unprecedented that the USDA is making a major effort to publicize these programs and ensure that at least some federal money flows into emerging alternative food systems.

The KYF2 Compass Map.

This month, the USDA is making a very public effort to report its progress with the KYF2 program after two-and-a-half years. The agency has held several press events, including a live-streaming conversation from the USDA headquarters last week, another from the White House on Monday (that included the first family’s head chef/resident looker, Sam Kass), and an ongoing attempt at a conversation via a hashtag on Twitter.

The agency has released what it calls the Compass, a series of documents, case studies, tools, and an interactive map (above) designed to be a living representation of the KYF2 effort and its resources. The Compass includes anecdotes about scrappy, likable farmers, ranchers, and other business owners who’ve used USDA dollars for things like food co-ops, small meat processors, hoop houses, and artisan cheese operations. And most who take the time to dig in to the somewhat dry materials will likely be convinced that real work and concrete change is taking place — even if they’re ultimately dwarfed by the USDA’s agribusiness efforts.

But the USDA’s media blitz also raises a disturbing question, if we look closely: Does the agency see local food as any sort of alternative to industrial-scale (or “production”) agriculture? Or is it more of a garnish — say, a sprig of parsley — meant to make our nation’s heaping plate of corn and soy more appetizing?

Click to watch the video.

This scene from last week’s live stream might shed some light on the answer.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan are sitting together talking to an online audience flanked by the USDA seal and the American flag. Off to the side is a screen, where every few minutes a question that’s been asked by an audience member via Twitter or email will pop up for the secretary and deputy to read out loud and answer.