HEAL Food Alliance & People’s Action Statements on the Confirmation of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, as Secretary of  Agriculture. This is Vilsack’s second time leading the Department of Agriculture (USDA), having done so first from 2009 to 2017 during the Obama administration.

In response to Secretary Vilsack’s confirmation, Navina Khanna, Executive Director of HEAL Food Alliance  issued the following statement:

“The US Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s no secret that the HEAL Food Alliance and our allies publicly opposed his nomination to the position based on his track record as Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama. 

Under Vilsack’s previous tenure as Secretary, the US Department of Agriculture put corporate interests ahead of the well-being of community, failed to support Black farmers, and consistently prioritized profits over the health and safety of working people in the food system.  

We are heartened that Secretary Vilsack has made it clear that he has heard this critique and has committed to taking steps to remain accountable to the communities that are most negatively burdened by the disparities of our current food system, including a majority Black, Latinx, and people of color workforce. We are beginning to see evidence of this in a number of high-level appointments, and we celebrate the leadership of Monica Rainge, Zach Dechaneux, Kumar Chandran, and of course Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronough, all of whom have demonstrated a commitment to work with and on behalf of frontline communities. 

The US Department of Agriculture has a long way to go to right their 160 years of practices that have upheld white supremacy and an ethos that values profits over people or our planet, driving corporate consolidation in our food and farm system, pushing independent farmers and rural families off the land, and risking the lives of working people while polluting our air, waterways, and eroding the soil and biodiversity we all depend on. 

Secretary Vilsack now has a renewed opportunity to do things differently, and this will require an intersectional, interagency approach that addresses the whole picture, including public health, the environment, farmers’ livelihoods, laborers’ lives, and community wealth. COVID-19 has illuminated the failures of the consolidated, corporate-controlled and highly centralized food system that is unable – and unwilling – to adapt to the needs of our communities in times of crisis. We sincerely hope that the Secretary will take this opportunity to work with us to break up this rigged, consolidated system and ensure protections for food and farm workers, support for BIPOC producers, invest in agroecological practices that mitigate climate change, and enable locally controlled food systems to thrive. 

We look forward to regular communication with and from Secretary Vilsack’s office to ensure that the USDA meets the needs of our communities, and that we have the support we need to make a future where all people and our planet can thrive.”

In addition, Shawn Sebastian, Senior Strategist, People and Planet First Initiative in Rural America, People’s Action issued the following statement:

“Vilsack needs to break up corporate ag monopolies and stand up for small farmers, meatpacking workers, and Black farmers in ways that he didn’t the last time he was at USDA. Democrats can’t win without rural communities, and the USDA is the primary federal agency interfacing rural communities. But 64% of rural people think the USDA benefits big corporations rather than regular people. False solutions won’t work. Pretending exports and overproduction will solve the economic crisis farmers are facing won’t work. Implementing carbon markets and methane digesters just so CAFOs can greenwash their pollution while  poisoning our water won’t work.

Vilsack’s USDA will need to take on corporate power to achieve racial equity, tackle the climate crisis, and prove to rural voters that government can work for them. We’re already seeing important changes from Vilsack with some brilliant high-level appointments. We are hopeful we can work together on our shared priorities of rural development, racial equity, and addressing the climate crisis with Vilsack and the new team he is building at USDA.”

About the HEAL Food Alliance

The HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance is a national multi-sector, multi-racial coalition. We are led by our member-organizations, who represent about two million rural and urban farmers, ranchers, fishers, farm and food chain workers, indigenous groups, scientists, public health advocates, policy experts, and community organizers united in their commitment to transformed food systems that are healthy for all families, accessible and affordable for all communities, and fair to the working people who grow, distribute, prepare, and serve our food – while protecting the air, water, and land we all depend on. healfoodalliance.org

About People’s Action

People’s Action is a national network of 40 state and local grassroots, power-building organizations in 30 states united in fighting for justice. We operate the largest progressive rural organizing project in the country. People’s Action and its member organizations coordinated one of the biggest distributed organizing programs in rural areas this election season. peoplesaction.org