Vilsack Puts Focus on Food, Nutrition Insecurity

March 5, 2021 by Kate Michael
HOLD FOR STORY BY ROXANA HEGEMAN - FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2020, file photo former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who the Biden administration chose to reprise that role, speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. Joe Biden's nomination of Vilsack to lead the Agriculture Department is getting a chilly reaction from many Black farmers who contend he didn't do enough to help them the last time he had the job. The former Iowa governor served eight years as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON — Just over a week after he was confirmed as head of the United States Department of Agriculture for the second time, Tom Vilsack doubled down on his efforts to solve both food and nutrition insecurity around the nation. 

“We need to change the discussion away from simply focusing on hunger, but also that we have a major nutrition challenge. We need to talk about both of them,” he told a gathering of the National Press Foundation.

“It’s very easy to talk in this country about food insecurity,” he said. “But I think there’s a much larger problem we have to confront… When you consider that 60% of Americans have one chronic disease and 40% of Americans have two or more chronic diseases — and diet is directly connected to many of those chronic diseases.”

While COVID has highlighted the nation’s most pressing food insecurity concerns, Vilsack argues that poor nutrition is equally important and may end up being a future national security issue as well. He cited a population unfit for military service as a very real fear, as well as a catalyst for his pledge to enhance USDA’s efforts on food programs.

“We cannot have the levels of obesity, diabetes, and chronic illness that we have today. It will just literally cripple everything we’re trying to do as a country,” he said.

The majority — two-thirds — of USDA spending is used for food programs. In fiscal year 2020, the nation spent $120 billion on these programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infant and Children; and soup kitchens, food banks, and other programs.

“Forty-three million Americans benefit from the SNAP program alone,” Vilsack said. 

As a result of increased need during the pandemic, USDA increased the SNAP benefit by 15%, extended pandemic EBT, which allows states to provide benefits to children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals, and created other flexibilities like WIC waivers and remote issuance of benefits. 

The American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package proposed by President Biden, would provide for further expansion and extension of benefits. And Vilsack believes it will expand the agency’s ability to promote the consumption of healthier, more nutritious food.

“The Department of Agriculture has a responsibility not only to improve nutrition but to do what we can to encourage the food and agriculture industry to increase access to healthier, more nutritious food,” he said.

Among the plans he has for the agency are modernizing systems and programs to significantly expand access; making sure program benefits are meaningful; and figuring out ways to make utilization of benefits more convenient, including online use of SNAP and other creative vehicles for utilization.

In addition to a strong focus on feeding children, Vilsack is also looking to increase the number of senior participants in USDA food programs.

“Many seniors see SNAP as welfare… they are proud people,” he said. “This is not welfare. This is for all of our benefit. Getting a SNAP benefit is not… something you should feel badly about, but something in our collective interest for people to be well-fed.”

And finally, he wants to use lessons learned during the pandemic to deal with any future disruptions to foodservice operations and food assistance programs. 

“We learned during the pandemic the need for our food system to be able to transition more quickly,” he said. 

To do this, he would eliminate disincentives to provide food products in major disruptions — like the dumping of milk as a result of supply chain cost and changing demand during the pandemic — and focus on the nation’s infrastructure for proper storage and refrigeration, especially ameliorating the capacity of the nation’s food banks. 

Vilsack assures, “Investing in infrastructure and in the distribution system enables us to do a better job… providing access to decent food.” 

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