Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) broke with Democrats to vote against his nomination.
Vilsack had faced intense criticism from civil rights activists saying he did not go far enough to eradicate racial discrimination at the agency or to support farmers of color during his first stint in the role.
He will head the agency at a time of rising food insecurity because of the pandemic. An estimated 50 million Americans are food insecure, and food banks and pantries around the country are running low.
Vilsack will also face demands to provide assistance to farmers after the Biden administration held up $2.3 billion in aid for farmers approved by the Trump administration.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America’s food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America,” Vilsack said in a statement after the vote.
Vilsack said during his confirmation hearing that he will prioritize food programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and WIC, which provides grants for low-income women and children.
“The USDA needs to do a better job of educating people about the existence of these programs,” he said at the time. “It’s important to get state and local leaders involved in this as well, and that we make access to these programs more convenient.”
Vilsack spoke at the confirmation hearing of expanding farm-to-school or -prison programs, financing food hubs, expanding commitments to farmers markets and making sure food banks have infrastructure to collect and store perishable products.
He also promised to prioritize racial justice as well as support and incentivize farmers, ranchers and foresters to adopt climate-friendly practices.
Vilsack has said he shares Biden’s vision of net-zero agriculture, achieved in part by building markets that pay farmers for sequestering carbon and capturing and reusing methane.
Asked about his no vote on the Vilsack confirmation, Sanders told The Washington Post, “Well, I like Tom, and I’ve known him for years. But I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture.”
A statement from Sanders said that “at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry. I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that is not what Tom did when he last served in this job.”
Corey Lea, a Black rancher in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and head of the Cowtown Foundation advocacy group, sent an open letter to Biden objecting to Vilsack’s appointment. But he said Vilsack’s confirmation represented an opportunity to make amends for the missteps in his first time in the job.
“This time from Day One Vilsack’s going to have to show that he’s willing to address the problems that face minority farmers, and Black farmers in particular,” he said. “I’m going to be hopeful because what we’ve seen from senators Warnock, Booker and others — with their Justice for Black Farmers Act and Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act — they’ve been so engaged with Black farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers to find out what their problems are. They are going to hold Vilsack’s feet to the fire and not give him a free pass this time.”
Major agricultural organizations like the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union have expressed consistent support for Vilsack. Upon his confirmation, the American Soybean Association, the North American Meat Institute, the National Milk Producers Federation and other industry groups praised his years of experience. Hunger advocacy groups and nonprofits such as Hunger Free America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have also expressed support.
Fellow Iowan Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley attempted to “set the record straight” about Vilsack’s pursuit of racial justice.
“He made it clear to all employees that discrimination of any form will not be tolerated at USDA,” Grassley said in a statement. “I know Secretary Vilsack will continue to work for the family farmers and spotlight their contributions to agriculture and society.”
Vilsack, 70, served from 2009 to 2017 in the Obama administration, and will take office as the second-longest-serving secretary of agriculture. He assumes the role two months earlier than his predecessor Sonny Perdue, who did not step into the position in the Trump administration until April 2017.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.