It would be difficult to find a more conventional choice for USDA Secretary than Iowa's Tom Vilsack. He follows a long line of Corn State Governors, all of whom have had close ties to the ethanol industry and agribusiness. For an administration elected on the basis of change, Vilsack is about as distinguishable from previous Secretaries as are yellow lines on a two lane blacktop road.
What may be different about Vilsack is that, so far, he has made himself available to meet with groups of sustainable agriculture advocates, and he says that he wants USDA to focus more on supporting local food systems and local production and food security. That by itself is a far cry from USDA's usual dictum to farmers to "get big or get out."
One reason not to dismiss Vilsack's words as stay the course hyperbolae is because of how he describes his own troubled history with food and obesity. In an internal Departmental interview with USDA's Jane Black, Vilsack, 58, had this to say:
"Food during my early years was a very difficult issue for me. I grew up in an addictive family. My mother had serious problems with alcohol and prescription drugs. I was an overweight kid. I can remember back in those days there weren't the strategies that there are today to deal with those issues. My parents put this very nasty cartoon of a very overweight young kid with a beanie cap and pasted it on the front of the refrigerator. Every time I opened the refrigerator I had to look at that picture.
"Food is a fairly significant aspect of my life," Vilsack continued. "I have struggled mightily with food and with my weight. And I'm conscious of it, so I have sensitivity to people who struggle with their weight. That's one aspect about me that people don't fully appreciate. I don't want youngsters to go through what I went through.
"There are ways we can go do a better job of educating young moms and dads about the vital role they have as the child's first teacher. I think there are ways in which we can partner with local school districts and states to do a better job to provide nutrition options at school. It's our responsibility to get this health-care crisis under control. I think if people understand my history and how serious I am about the crisis they would be less concerned about my concern for better and healthier food and food systems."
What does Vilsack have to say about local foods and local production?
"In a perfect world," Vilsack says, "Everything that is sold, everything that is purchased and consumed would be local, so that the local economy would receive the benefits. But that stresses local production capacities, especially since we don't have a very sophisticated distribution system for locally grown food. One thing we can do now is work together on strategies to increase local production and improve the local distribution system. USDA can [do that] through grant programs, loan programs, or it can be technical assistance to local producers and food systems advocates."
Sustainable agriculture advocates and small farmers have suggested that USDA should be renamed and called the United States Department of Food. When asked about that suggestion, Vilsack said "Rather than renaming the Department, I think we need a recognition that USDA is America's first energy department. If you think of what food is, it's the energy we use to do our daily work. I want people to know that about the USDA because it's not fully appreciated as such.
"But you can tell people there's a new day here," Vilsack continued. "As we set up advisory boards and committees, we'll have a better representation of people involved in food and agriculture, and recognition of a new USDA vision of a sufficient, safe, nutritious food supply produced in a sustainable and environmentally supportive way."