Tom Vilsack traveled to a Hy-Vee store in West Des Moines, Iowa, at the end of last year to see firsthand how the retailer’s health and wellness programs are helping customers eat better. Since becoming the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack has made access to nutritious food and nutrition information one of his main goals.
“If you take a look at a label — unless you’re a dietitian or a chemist or a doctor — it’s really hard to determine between two products which is the best product for you and your family,” he said during a news conference at the store.
Vilsack assumed his post during the worst of the recession, and one of his first jobs was to overhaul the nation’s food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. A full 70% of the USDA’s budget goes to fund nutrition assistance, and for good reason: By September 2009, more than 35 million Americans were getting assistance — the highest number of recipients ever.
Vilsack stands apart for not just expanding benefits, but for keeping the goal of healthy eating front and center for those enrolled in SNAP. The overall effort is manifesting itself in several ways. One of the most important is the reauthorization of the child nutrition bill that provides food for schools.
“We will not succeed if any of our children aren’t learning as they should because they are hungry, and cannot achieve their potential because they aren’t healthy,” Vilsack told the National Press Club in February.
Under Vilsack’s leadership, the USDA is also working with other agencies to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the complementary Food Pyramid, as mandated by Congress every five years. Additionally, the agency is involved with the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which seeks to bring supermarkets and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities.
Not all of Vilsack’s time has been spent on nutrition. Another key area where he’s making headlines concerns food safety and security. The USDA currently spends more than $1 billion on food safety. Most recently, he announced new rules designed to reduce the presence of harmful pathogens in poultry.
“There is no more important mission at USDA than ensuring the safety of our food,” Vilsack said in May.
The USDA also administers the National Organic Program, which it has overseen since standards were implemented in 2002. A major controversy was recently settled involving the NOP’s “access to pasture” rule, which critics say provided big loopholes for unscrupulous operators. New regulations that took effect last month require that dairy cows and other ruminants be out on pasture for at least 120 days a year.
It also requires that the animals receive at least 30% of their diet from pasturing. Vilsack called the updated standards clear and enforceable.
“The final rule … will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products,” he said.