The transition notes from the left flank of American agriculture began to pile up almost as soon as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential victory was clear.
There were big and small pleas. Set the rules for organic livestock keeping and reverse the department’s toll on black farmers. Restore school food standards and strengthen GMO labels. Prioritize the climate crisis. It has even been suggested to change the name of the United States Department of Agriculture to Department of Food and Welfare.
Chef Michel Nischan is among those who spoke to Biden’s transition team on nutrition and agricultural policy. His pro-food resume dates back to the first Bush administration. It was his idea to double the value of food stamps for fruits and vegetables, a notion that became a national program.
He has a message for his fellow food warriors, many of whom say their problems were pushed several boxes on the game board under former President Donald J. Trump: The Department of Agriculture is a sub agency – workforce facing staggering hunger and security issues caused by the pandemic. The repair must take place before the reform.
“It’s like, we know you want us to go from meat to going vegan,” Mr. Nischan said. “But man, we need to fix the stove first.”
Tom Vilsack, who was Agriculture Secretary in the Obama administration and is expected to be confirmed by the Senate for another round, said in an interview Friday that he had already outlined his agenda.
“There are probably five very, very big challenges that need to be addressed very quickly,” he said. Topping the list is to protect Agriculture Ministry employees and people who process the country’s food from the virus, and determine what universities, government laboratories and other land granting department offices might be able to store. and administering vaccines.
The fight against hunger is an urgent issue, as are two of his boss’s other priorities: promoting social justice and fighting climate change.
Then comes the strengthening of regional food systems and assistance to farmers. “Once we are a bit on the other side of the virus itself, then we have the important task of revitalizing the rural economy that has been affected by this,” Mr Vilsack said.
Mr. Vilsack is returning to a very different department from the one he ran during Obama’s time, when he landed on Forbes’ list of America’s top employers. Morale is low and many positions are vacant, especially in agencies that provide the data and scientific research on which policy decisions are made.
“Mentally and emotionally, the career staff are just devastated,” said Sam Kass, the White House chief who became President Barack Obama’s senior nutrition adviser and spoke to Mr. Vilsack about his agenda. . “They have to start stabilizing the ship.”
Followers of the good food movement, which promotes healthy local foods grown in an environmentally friendly way by people who receive a fair wage, say that out of necessity, many organizations have grown stronger during an administration. Trump dedicated to agro-industry and factory farming. They had to find ways to be innovative without the support of the huge federal food agency.
The Department of Agriculture, with a budget of $ 153 billion and nearly 100,000 employees, manages 29 agencies and offices whose tasks range from feeding the poorest Americans and regulating food from public schoolchildren to forest management and helping farmers sell products like soybeans abroad.
Progressive food policy at the federal level had grown slowly but steadily since the Clinton administration, when California chef Alice Waters began urging the White House to improve school food and set up a vegetable garden at the White House; when the first national organic standards were introduced; and when the ministry’s attention to civil rights issues increased.
Under Mr. Obama, infant nutrition and the quality of school meals have become a priority. Michelle Obama created a permanent garden for the White House. Thousands of microcredits have been granted to smallholder start-up farmers, and climate-friendly policies have gained ground.
When Mr. Trump arrived at the White House, his supporters joked about turning the garden into a putting green. Its agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, transferred the department’s largest scientific research agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Food and Agriculture Institute, from Washington to Kansas City, in the Missouri. Whether by design or by default – many employees resigned rather than relocated – staff were emptied, limiting agency efficiency.
Mr Trump has become a champion in many rural communities, easing regulations and paying farmers when his tough trade policies and the pandemic hurt sales.
“In my more than 40 years covering agricultural affairs in Washington, I have seen a president talk about agriculture and trade policy as much as our president,” said Jim Wiesemeyer, Farm Journal Washington correspondent, in an interview with the magazine.
But the mood was dark on the other side. “Looking back, it was pretty brutal,” said Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, which represents a $ 50 billion segment of the food industry. “The root of it was a hyper-anti-regulatory agenda with no respect for organic produce or other forms of sustainable agriculture.”
Some, like Ms Batcha, trust Mr Vilsack, who was most recently the top executive of a global dairy trade group.
Others see it as a retread, without a fresh, step-by-step view of how to improve the food system. Not all agro-industry and commodity farmers are satisfied either. Many hoped the job would go to Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota with close ties to rural issues. Fighters for social justice and environmental issues campaigned for Marcia L. Fudge, a congresswoman from Cleveland whom President Biden ultimately appointed secretary of housing and urban development.
In Mr Vilsack, the new president went with the experience, looking for someone who could immediately get down to work on the safety and nutrition issues related to the pandemic. The number of Americans facing hunger has risen, by some estimates, to over 50 million in 2020, from about 34 million in 2019.
President Biden signed an executive order on Friday that would increase both the amount of federal food aid for an estimated 12 million people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as Food Stamps) and the grocery money donated to school-aged families. children. He also included more money for food stamps and other federal food programs in his proposed $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package.
“Of all the problems we face in this country, for me hunger is the most soluble,” said Billy Shore, founder and executive chairman of Share Our Strength, which works to end child hunger in the United States. United States. “We are so focused on vaccine or testing shortages. There is no shortage of food in the country or food programs. I think this is a moment of enormous opportunity.
Public schools scramble to feed students even when the pandemic has kept them at home, which has renewed a call for universal school meals. The idea is to remove the administrative complexities of the $ 18 billion program and make healthy foods available to all students, regardless of their family’s income, such as bus rides or textbooks. . (Under a Trump administration order relating to Covid, all children have temporary access to free school meals until the end of the school year.)
The department could help heal political divisions by making it easier to use locally grown foods and making meals healthier for schools, said Curt Ellis, chief executive of FoodCorps and a group pushing for a summit of the White House on child nutrition during Biden’s First 100. days.
“This type of local economic development is very popular in rural communities in the Red State, as well as in urban communities in the Blue State,” Mr. Ellis said, adding that the school nutrition professionals with whom he works had made progress despite the Trump administration. Strategies.
“The question now is what can we accomplish with the wind at our back,” he said.
The pandemic has shown how fragile the food supply chain is, Vilsack said, and highlighted the need to open more regional and local markets and increase the number of meat processors so that the country not be so dependent on a handful of factories. .
Changes that many people thought were decades away, like universal school meals, stronger urban and rural supply chains, and e-commerce for agriculture, accelerated during the pandemic and the Trump administration, has said Krystal Oriadha, senior director of policy and programs at the National Farm to School Network.
Farmers, cooks, environmentalists and anti-hunger advocates – groups that often pull in different directions – have been forced to strengthen relationships based on intersectionality and a new understanding of interconnectedness and connection. the vulnerability of the food system.
“It’s a new time, with a new generation of voters pushing for ideas regarding environmental and racial justice issues like we’ve never had before,” she said. “For the first time, we can all see each other there.”
Even Ms Waters, the leader who has long relied on connections with high-profile politicians to further her quest to improve children’s education through gardening, works closer to home now. She is lobbying the University of California to replace its food supply system with a system based on a network of local farms as part of its global food initiative and to include food in the aggressive carbon neutral plan of the university.
In a recent interview, Ms Waters said that despite the change in administrations, she has given up on looking to Washington for solutions to what she sees as a broken food system.
“If we have one idea for all at the national level, it is just watered down,” she said. “I can no longer think nationally. I need to act locally. I need to go where the doors are open.