By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
When former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack was nominated as secretary of agriculture, many food policy activists, noting his reputation as a friend to corporate agriculture and ethanol producers, rendered a verdict that was swift and harsh: agribusiness as usual.
But Vilsack, newly installed in his regal but still-undecorated office on Independence Avenue, is out to redefine himself and his vision. In an interview this week, he called for a "new day" for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sprawling bureaucracy, which he believes should champion not only farmers but also everyone who eats.
"This is a department that intersects the lives of Americans two to three times a day. Every single American," he said. "So I absolutely see the constituency of this department as broader than those who produce our food -- it extends to those who consume it."
It is a significant departure from the traditional view of the USDA, which historically has emphasized programs that support commercial farming, such as price guarantees for crops and marketing promotions for exports.
"He's definitely sounding a different note than his predecessors," said Michael Pollan, the reform-minded author of the bestseller "In Defense of Food." "Whether they'll be reflected in policies remains to be seen."
With President Obama at the government's helm, food activists have begun drafting policy wish lists calling for more nutritious food in schools, money for school gardens, and incentives and support for small producers who find it difficult to compete with industrial-size farms.
Vilsack was cautious about outlining detailed proposals; he has yet to appoint a deputy secretary or the heads of key agencies such as the Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the food stamp program, or the Food Safety and Inspection Service, charged with protecting the meat, poultry and egg supply.
At Obama's bidding, one of Vilsack's first challenges will be to improve child nutrition and food assistance programs, such as the $6 billion Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which is up for renewal by Congress. Food activists have called for these programs to emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown when possible, to improve the diet of low-income families.
Vilsack said he supports such efforts: His first official act was the reinstatement of $3.2 million in grant funding for fruit and vegetable farmers that had been rescinded in the final days of the Bush administration. Though the dollar amount was small, Vilsack said it sent a message of his emphasis on nutritious food.
He added that educating school administrators, parents and children is essential in effecting change. To that end, he said, he supports establishing school and urban community gardens, long at the top of the wish list for activists.
"We want to make a better connection between what kids eat and knowing where it comes from," he said. "I've seen it in my own family. If you educate kids at an early age, you can have a tremendous impact."
Vilsack also said he favors establishing state food policy councils, nonpartisan advisory boards that would represent a diverse array of food interests. He created a state council in 2000 in Iowa, and he said it was instrumental in implementing improvements in nutritional benefits for seniors, expanding farmers' markets and increasing the number of people receiving food stamps.
Activists who have worked with Vilsack said his approach is encouraging, if not entirely surprising. The new secretary's reputation as a friend to agribusiness and ethanol producers may have been overstated, said David Murphy, director of Food Democracy Now, an Iowa-based nonprofit that has pushed for the appointment of a dozen "sustainability oriented" candidates for high-level USDA positions.
Even with a new mandate from Obama, Vilsack will remain under fierce pressure to protect corporate agriculture interests. At Vilsack's confirmation hearing Jan. 14, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) warned that he should not lose sight of the farmers who produce "the food and fiber for America and a troubled and hungry world."
Vilsack said he is sensitive to the "highly emotional experience" of farmers whose business and way of life are threatened. He said he wants to expand farmers' choices to include opportunities in energy -- such as wind, solar and geothermal power -- and in the growing market for organic and whole foods.