Insight into the policy views of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

By Timothy Sullivan, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student

When I learned that my graduate cohort would be meeting with USDA Secretary Vilsack during our food policy immersion course in Washington, D.C., the gears immediately started turning in my head. I began vigorously researching Secretary Vilsack’s policy views, wanting to ask him the most impactful question possible in our time with him. As former Governor of Iowa and former President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, many see Secretary Vilsack as a supporter of “big ag.” I learned that this belief is not rooted in reality and ignores the wonderful things Secretary Vilsack has done for the agriculture sector – small, medium, and large.

Just a day prior, our cohort found out that Secretary Vilsack would be meeting with President Biden and Chairs and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to discuss the process for the upcoming Farm Bill, a historic moment. It became eerily quiet when he walked into our meeting room (unexpectedly 15 minutes early). His presence was powerful as he walked to the stage and sat down. With no introduction needed, he asked to immediately take our questions.

As Secretary Vilsack answered my question, he leaned forward and looked directly into my eyes. I realized the intensity wasn’t about my question but his passionate insight into the policy issues at hand. He made no bones about it: the historic meeting scheduled for later in the day was an acknowledgment that a bipartisan effort needed to be made on the Farm Bill. But Secretary Vilsack didn’t want to talk about the meeting. He wanted to talk about the underlying issues that needed to be resolved.

The debt ceiling debate is one that no American should ignore. Critical to keeping our country from going into default and a probable economic crisis, bipartisan ground must be made to avert disaster. One central area of concern for Secretary Vilsack is stricter work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that Republicans are using as a tactic to reduce spending. Many of the people utilizing SNAP cannot meet the work requirement of 20 hours per week due to their circumstances, and as Secretary Vilsack explained, most of those who don’t adhere to this requirement are reduced to receiving benefits only three out of every thirty-six months.

Secretary Vilsack also shared his view on immigration. American agriculture’s most significant current threat is a massive labor shortage, and our immigration policies only exacerbate that issue. Immigrants from Mexico and South America are critical to providing labor to keep our farms and ranches alive. Still, rather than creating policies to help our agricultural industry, our leaders so far have focused on policies to keep these immigrants out of our country and not on a workable migrant farm program.

I left the meeting with the feeling that our country is at a crossroads right now with national food policy. Secretary Vilsack’s mission, as well as the mission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a whole, is working to ensure our food systems are accessible to all, are diverse, and adequately provide for our country (and many other parts of the world) and our posterity. Supporting that mission and being involved in food policy discourse is the duty of every American citizen. With my studies in the master’s program for sustainable food systems, I gladly accept that responsibility.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 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.