It's official: Nutrition will play a big role in reform at the USDA
After reading Tom Philpott’s post on Tom Vilsack’s recent comments to the WaPo, I think it’s worth digging in a bit more.
To this point, we’ve all had to be content with reading tea leaves and parsing statements. But now we are finally getting a taste of the tea. Philpott highlighted Vilsack’s line about his desire to represent the interests of those “who consume food” — a long-awaited distinction to be sure.
Of course, claiming to represent eaters is no panacea. The USDA can easily describe its efforts to support a system that provides vast amounts of cheap calories as “helpful” to consumers — and that kind of disingenuous wordplay would be par for the course at the old USDA. But it appears that Vilsack takes a broader, more progressive view as he pointed out the following:
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first official act was the reinstatement of $3.2 million in grant funding for fruit and vegetable farmers that had been rescinded in the final days of the Bush administration.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.
And then we have his stated desire to “make a better connection between what kids eat and knowing where it comes from” by supporting the development of school and community gardens.
This is a big deal. And not simply from the perspective of education. Farm-to-school programs are growing in popularity but are often treated as “luxuries” that are first on the budget chopping block. And they often find themselves in conflict with the school lunch program, which despite its hundred-year-old (!) progressive roots has since become a dumping ground for agribusiness. Vilsack getting behind school gardens suggests that reforming the national school lunch program is indeed a high priority.
We won’t have to wait long to see more action from Vilsack. The food stamp program (now called SNAP) is up for renewal and will provide an early test. If I may indulge in a bit of that tea-leaf reading, I’ll point to two quotes from Vilsack’s recent news conference. He said, “[T]he Department should play a key role in the public health debate” regarding obesity, and that he viewed SNAP’s reauthorization as “a great opportunity for us to make a statement about the importance of healthy and nutritious eating.”
The fact is that starting with SNAP couldn’t be a better way to kick off agriculture reform. As a nutrition program, it has a broad appeal that extends far beyond Big Ag. We’ll find out right away what sort of appetite Vilsack has for the fight.
And because you can’t be too hopeful when it comes to food and agricultural policy, I will leave you with a nifty quote from Rep. Collin Peterson, the current chair of the House Ag Committee (and thankfully unable to participate in any of the upcoming confirmation votes for USDA appointments), which appeared last year in the Financial Times (h/t Jill Richardson) and reminds us all of the stakes in the coming battles.
For whatever reason, people are willing to pay two or three times as much for something that says “organic” or “local.” Far be it from me to understand what that’s about, but that’s reality. And if people are dumb enough to pay that much, then hallelujah.
Reform can’t come soon enough.