By Abigail Martone-Richards, ASU Food Systems graduate student.
During our cohort’s DC immersive program, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Kumar Chandran, a USDA Senior Advisor focusing on nutrition under Secretary Vilsack. This isn’t Mr. Chandran’s first foray at USDA; he previously served as Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services in the Obama Administration. Just prior to his most recent position, however, he served as Policy Director for the national nonprofit, FoodCorps. Chandran’s current appointment to USDA is significant for a number of reasons including President Biden’s (and Secretary Vilsack’s) commitment to a more diverse government. But it is really Chandran’s expertise in food policy that is so vital to the department, especially after it had endured four years of unique challenges and setbacks under the Trump administration.
It became apparent while talking with Mr. Chandran that his past experience and expertise in food policy has been invaluable in his first year under the Biden administration. While his main priority is supporting Secretary Vilsack on a day-to-day basis, his expertise has played a role in initiatives like implementing the American Rescue Plan (President Biden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic) and ensuring the department is up to date on the latest in food policy. As a Senior Advisor on nutrition, Chandran maintains a strong focus on nutrition security for the nation’s most vulnerable and ensuring there are safety nets to support them. While the main priorities are set through the President’s budget, Chandran is able to offer advice and guidance on current food policy efforts, including how to best implement policy, even while navigating an often lengthy rulemaking process.
While he spends much of his time writing memos, planning site visits, informing food policy and generally supporting the main goals of USDA, each day can bring unexpected issues which require agility and persistent orientation towards USDA’s top goals. Under Secretary Vilsack, the department has organized a new mission and set of values, which include 5 cross-cutting themes. While everyone at USDA has involvement in each, Chandran’s experience feels especially impactful on two of the five: Tackling Food and Nutrition Insecurity and Advancing Racial Justice, Equity, and Opportunity. This is where his prior experience feels most affecting. While at FoodCorps, Chandran pushed for similar goals across our food systems and often raised the alarm when systems meant to support some of our most vulnerable citizens were under attack, particularly under President Trump. He pushed for better access to healthy, affordable food through policy, advocacy and education, understanding the link to equity and racial justice. This focus is not lost in his new role. As we head towards a new Farm Bill and other important food policy moments, it is encouraging that there are people like Chandran who are lending their expertise and passion to help others and partnering with USDA to achieve their goals. I am confident that there will be a lasting impact and we’ll benefit from Mr. Chandran’s time at USDA for years to come.
This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture-focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.