If you have never heard of Tom Vilsack, listen up, as you may be hearing a lot more about him in the coming months: Several sources, including the Des Moines Register, Vox, and the Washington Post, have noted the Secretary of Agriculture's possible candidacy as Hillary Clinton's running mate in the upcoming election.
The Post places him with the establishment, a more conservative choice for Hillary (who's tasked with wooing both far-left voters and far-right ones), though he is from swing state Iowa. The Des Moines Register raises his political history (aside from being governor of Iowa and Secretary of Agriculture, he's got one presidential run from 2006 and 2007 under his belt, and was considered for vice president when John Kerry was running), a good relationship with the Clintons, and, on the downside, relatively low visibility. It also quotes former Iowa U.S. senator Tom Harkin as saying that Vilsack might appeal to some of the audiences Hillary hasn't won over: "White men. Vilsack, you know, he’s secretary of agriculture, he wears his cowboy boots, and he’s originally from Pennsylvania. What’s a state Hillary needs to carry? Pennsylvania.”
While neither source places him on the short short list, it makes one wonder: What could it mean for food to have a secretary of agriculture in the White House? We asked a few folks on the ground, with their feet in food policy and activism. Here's what they had to say:
In the conflicted field of food and agriculture, Secretary Vilsack has been able to thread the needle pretty deftly through opposing camps.
The USDA has done little to alter the status quo of industrial ag, but it has helped the agenda of the "good food" movement—most directly by advancing the aims of the First Lady's Let's Move program, as well as food stamps and childhood nutrition. Vilsack and Michelle Obama did so in the face of extremely virulent political opposition. The USDA under Vilsack has also expanded organics and local food initiatives in ways that have been unprecedented. As an Iowan, he cares deeply about rural America—witness his recent role in combatting rural drug addiction.
As Vice President, he could continue to advance this varied agenda in important ways. But one thing is certain: In the absence of someone like Vilsack at the White House or USDA, many of the new initiatives he's championed may lack energy or enthusiasm in a new administration. The status quo will grind on. And I wonder whether one of the first things to go may be the White House kitchen garden itself, at least as a symbol of the sort of change Vilsack sought.
I have now been part of five Farm Bill cycles and watched food policy evolve over the last few decades. And in some ways it's the worst part of our democracy. Food policy has moved slowly, is not responsive to the urgent needs and challenges of American eaters, and it has tended to serve special interests in the forms of the largest farms and the largest food makers. So I don't always have hope that even good, well-intentioned people can help make change.
I have met Tom Vilsack, and have seen him speak at the Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. I really like his thinking on climate change and future-friendly farms that are more diverse and ecologically robust, to deal with more erratic weather. Beyond that, he has been criticized for being sympathetic to the interests of large agribusiness and, notably, the biotech industry under the Obama administration. There was notably some state legislation for GMO labeling passed during the Obama administration, but nothing on the federal level. School nutrition improved a bit under his watch, but not much.
If I had to name my dream secretary of agriculture, it would be Sam Kass or Michael Pollan or Alice Waters, but more reasonably I would look to Kristen Gillibrand, who has represented New York on the senate agriculture committee and has been behind all sorts of forward-thinking legislation to support non-commodity crops and more diverse food systems, not to mention a champion of improved and free school lunch for all American kids. I would love to see someone like Dennis Kucinich, who has a great understanding of the risks of chemical-focused agriculture and the concern of food industry being dominated by a monopoly of companies. Senator Chuck Grassley has also been great on conservation, ecological payments for farmers, breaking up ag monopolies, GMO labeling, and lots more.
It’s difficult to predict what this would mean. Obviously, Secretary Vilsack has deep ties to agricultural policy and those won’t go away. This could be good for policy or not, depending on the politics. Vilsack tried, for example, to achieve détente between producers of organics and GMOs, but failed. He did not achieve much success in revitalizing middle America, as he had hoped. He was not able to do more than pilot projects for bringing agriculture policy in line with health policy. And he caved in to the meat industry on sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines. Would he be able to fix any of this from the Vice Presidency? Someone else will be USDA Secretary, so it’s hard to say.
If Hillary chooses someone involved in agriculture to be her VP, I would hope that she/he would help bring agriculture and the food system more front and center to the Administration’s work. I would be really excited if she chose someone who really knows what it's like to farm and who has spent her/his career working with farmers and making the food system more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. Kathleen Merrigan or Congresswoman Chellie Pingree would be excellent choices—not only do they understand the complexities of agriculture, but they know that for real change to happen, it’s going to mean breaking down silos in the food system and including small, medium, and large farmers in conversations with eaters, businesses, policymakers, and the funding and donor communities.
Share your own (food-related, please) political hopes in the comments.