On the job
With less than a month under his belt as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack has certainly been out-and-about. He’s been holding press conferences, making announcements, and giving interviews – I can’t remember a recent Ag secretary who has made such an effort to appear like he’s hitting the ground running. Perhaps it’s partly due to the growing voice for food system reform; when enough of us speak up, it increases the pressure on the USDA to act like they’re working. So, the question is, how has Vilsack been doing over this past busy month?
In early February, the Washington Post published an article that collected some of Vilsack’s recent statements that seem to signal a departure from the USDA status quo. Already, he’s mentioned that he’s focused on improving child nutrition, growing food education and community garden programs, and establishing state-run food policy councils. As Secretary, his first action was to restore a small grant for fruit and vegetable farmers that was eliminated during the Bush administration.
A week later, the Post followed this up with a fairly candid interview with Vilsack, in which he discussed his hopes for the USDA, his belief in food education, and his personal struggles with healthy eating and his weight. In it, he clearly stated:
This is a department that intersects the lives of Americans two to three times a day. Every single American. The department has a global influence in terms of food, in terms of consumers and in terms of some of the moral challenges that a wealthy nation faces in the face of hunger. 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’s no small coincidence that these word’s recalled Lincoln’s declaration that the USDA was the “People’s Department.” On Lincoln’s birthday, the USDA announced the creation of a “People’s Garden,” which would return a portion of paved ground outside of the department headquarters to planted garden. In addition, this will kick-off a spate of garden-planting at each of the USDA facilities worldwide. You can read the entire press release from the USDA here.
All of these small actions have certainly added up to an encouraging statement of intent. Still, it’s important to remember that a lot of this has just been talk so far. As Grist points out, Vilsack has also spent his first month pushing for wider adoption of corn-based ethanols and Ethicurean notes that the USDA press release focuses on green gardening techniques, rather than promising that the garden will be used for food production. It remains to be seen how Vilsack’s early promises will play out.
Also, Vilsack has yet to appoint his influential Under Secretaries. If you missed the Food Democracy Now! petition the first time around, there is still a chance to sign it and affirm your support of one of the 12 sustainable candidates listed on the petition. By picking one of these individuals (Chuck Hassebrock is rumored to be in the running), Vilsack would certainly show some substance behind the statements he’s made.
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