Secretary Vilsack on Ag Policy and Diet-related Disease Prevention

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack often observes that USDA policy could be aimed at preventing diet-related diseases. He suggests the USDA can modernize food programs while inspiring the food industry to increase production of and access to healthy foods.

To achieve these goals, AFA proposes connecting the dots from federal agriculture policy to pubic health by setting one clear proxy goal across farm programs:

Proxy-goal: Prioritize fiber-rich foods

This article cites multiple comments from Secretary Vilsack on the topic of federal ag policy’s role in nutrition security. Starting with comments at the …

National Press Foundation’s Briefing on American Hunger

“It’s easy to talk about food insecurity in the sense that there are 43 million Americans who are currently receiving benefits from the SNAP program. That’s one way of discussing the issue of food insecurity in the country.

I think there’s a much larger problem we have to confront: nutrition insecurity. When you consider that 60% of American adults have one chronic disease, 40% of us have two or more chronic diseases, and diet is directly connected to many of those chronic diseases, when you look at the fact that we have a significantly high rate of obesity among our children, which poses a potential national security concern for admirals and generals who are trying to figure out where the all-volunteer military is going to come from, when 75% of our children ages 17-24 are not fit for military service, you can see that this is a very large problem that we have to address.

Tom Vilsack speaking to the National Press Foundation March 3, 2021.

We spend $160 billion as a federal government through medicaid and medicare on diabetes (and obesity related diseases) which is significantly greater than the entire budget of the USDA.

Tom Vilsack

I think it is incumbent on the Department of Agriculture working in concert with the food and agriculture industry to begin the process of transforming our food system so that we address not only the issue of food insecurity but also nutrition insecurity.

The fact is that we spend $160 billion as a federal government through medicaid and medicare on diabetes which is significantly greater than the entire budget of the USDA, and much of that diabetes issue is directly connected to the issue of food and nutrition insecurity.

Tom Vilsack speaking to the National Press Foundation March 3, 2021.

Secretary Vilsack identified these goals for USDA

  • Goal #1: Modernize nutrition programs (access, system integrity, etc)
  • Goal #2: Expand availability and consumption of healthier and nutritious food. Do what we can to inspire the food and ag industry to expand access.
  • Goal #3: Education
  • Goal #4: Fast disaster response

How can we continue to provide access to healthy, nutritious foods in all areas of the country? Those in remote areas nutrition security. it’s really important that we have a concerted effort to change the discussion away from just focusing on hunger, but recognizing that we have a nutrition problem.

“When we think about nutrition, I think we’re going to learn a lot more about our genetic makeups over the course of the next five, 10, 15, 20 years,” Vilsack said. “And as we learn, we’re going to learn that there are going to be specific diets that are more designed for people with condition A, and condition B. And I think we, at USDA, need to be thinking about our food programs in that context.”

Secretary Vilsack, Mar 3 2021, National Press Foundation

Diet-related diseases and their relationship to the pandemic

Vilsack goes it alone: The only high-level Biden administration official who routinely talks about the issue (the link between diet-related diseases and the pandemic) is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — and he brings it up often. Vilsack likes to point out in his speeches, for example, that the government now spends more treating diabetes than the entire budget of the USDA, which is about $150 billion.

“It’s a significant issue that requires elevation,” Vilsack said in an interview. “We’re moving the dials that we can move at USDA. I think, however, it takes more than that. I think it takes multiple departments focused on this and multiple leaders saying this is an issue that requires some attention.”

We simplify it with the MyPlate effort ten years ago – it’s the anniversary of MyPlate. It’s half carbs and protein, you’ve got your fruits and vegetables, your dairy on the side. So it’s a relatively simple thing to see that plate and say, “Ok that’s what I want. Now I go to the grocery store and try to translate that into decisions I make on a fixed income, small low fixed income.” You just can’t do it. Studies show that by the end of the month, you’re not necessarily seeing MyPlate. You’re seeing a different type of configuration to make ends meet from day to day and week to week. It’s in our best interests collectively to make sure that our kids are well fed and nutritiously fed.

Obesity issue is a big time issue. 18.5% of our youngsters are currently obese, a significant number of our children are overweight. What do we know about American adults? 70% overweight or obese. 60% have one chronic disease. 40% have two or more chronic diseases. I don’t have to tell you this, but the cost of this is phenomenal.

Just to give you one statistic: the medicaid and medicare budget for obesity related illnesses and diseases is roughly $160, $170 billion a year. That’s more than the entire Department of Agriculture budget in a year. What if we could cut that in half with proper nutrition? That would be a tremendous savings. What could we do with those resources? We could probably do a better job of supporting SNAP, we might be able to have even higher quality meals in schools, we could have additional programs that provide the kind of information and access to information that people need. We need to focus on this issue. It’s a silent killer. We need to take it out of the shadows and bring it to the forefront. It’s literally killing us.

During COVID, we found those with diet-related diseases are more prone to more serious consequences from COVID. I’d like to think this is the last time we have to deal with a virus like this, but I think mother nature is going to continue to challenge us, so we need to be in a better position to deal with another virus like this.

Secretary Vilsack, The State of Childhood Obesity

It is often said that paradigm shifts start with big ideas

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack remarks to House Appropriations Subcommittee

First – climate change

A second big idea is moving beyond compensating individuals directly for discrimination, and root out recognize cumulative long-term impact of past discrimination. You’ve done that with the Rescue Plan, with the debt-relief act. You’ve created new opportunities to land access for socially disadvantaged farmers. We proposed the reestablishment of a strike-force to specialize a focused effort to eradicate the root-causes of poverty in those communities. It also reflects the important role that minority serving insitutions can play.

Third big idea: profitability & resiliency. We’ve learned from the pandemic the need for greater resiliency. That’s why the rescue plan created a supply chain investment and that’s why this budget help small processing facilities create more competition, more open markets, more opportunities for farmers to profit.

Fourth big idea: It’s not just about food insecurity, it’s also about nutrition insecurity. the fact is we have 18.5% of our children who are obese. We have 70% of our adults are overweight or obese. It’s putting tremendous pressure on our health care system. It is important and necessary to focus on nutrition security. Your rescue plan does that by addingg bonus resources for WIC, increasing SNAP benefit, fully funding WIC, summer EBT, by creating equipment grants so that schools can produce nutritious, quality foods for our children.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Secretary Vilsack at the Colorado State University’s Salazar Center’s Virtual International Symposium for Conservation Impact:

AFA suggests that by establishing a proxy goal to prioritize dietary fiber-rich foods across all farm policies (not just nutrition programs), the powerful USDA could make huge strides toward preventing our top killers of Americans: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, many cancers.