Vilsack's 'Food Problem' as Child Explains His Current Focus on Food Policy

February 10, 2009 06:00 PM

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Overweight problems as child a carryover issue with USDA Secretary

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is using the Washington Post as a virtual mouthpiece of his ideas, and he has a lot of them.

Today's Washington Post carries a brief question-and-answer article with Vilsack.The following are some of the questions asked and Vilsack's comments to Washington Post staff writer staff writer Jane Black.

Question: Some in the sustainable-food community have worried that you are too closely identified with ethanol and agribusiness. Is that fair?

Vilsack: “First, I would ask for the opportunity for people to get to know me and judge me by the actions I take in this office. I'm not sure the full nature of the record was understood.”

Question: What don't people know about you that might change their minds?

Vilsack: "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. So 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. So every time I opened the refrigerator I had to look at that picture.

"Food is a fairly significant aspect of my life. I have struggled mightily with food. With my weight. And I'm conscious of it. So I have a sensitivity to people who struggle with their weight. That's one aspect 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 that history and how serious I am about this and look at the record in Iowa -- the real record in Iowa -- they would be less concerned than they were."

Question: I know you are aware of the lists of progressive candidates for undersecretary that are circulating. How will you bring new voices into the debate?

Vilsack: “As we set up advisory boards and committees, we'll have a better representation of people involved in food and agriculture. I think it's not so much the names on the list as a recognition of the vision: a sufficient, safe, nutritious food supply produced in a sustainable and environmentally supportive way. There's a recognition of the importance of that.”

Question: Is it true that you are thinking of changing the name of the department to include a reference to food?

Vilsack: "We haven't got to that point. Rather than renaming it, as important as some people may feel that would be, I think [we need] a recognition that this was 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 about the USDA. This is a very important department. It's not fully appreciated as such."

Comments: Vilsack's weight problems as a child and his follow-up problems with food, as he noted, means this is an emotional issue with him. That is one of the reasons why he has consistently commented on the need for food policy changes. It likes means he will push USDA very hard in adhering more strictly to the food pyramid nutritional guidelines, as least for U.S. government food programs. And it also means a big push for a single food agency. If that comes, it may not be run by either USDA or the Food and Drug Administration but, alas, another separate entity, like the department established for homeland security.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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