WASHINGTON -- After a 25-minute interview, when then President-elect Barack Obama decided that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was his top choice as secretary of agriculture, the newly elected president made it clear that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be expanding its mission to promote fruits and vegetables.
"I want you to make sure America's children consume more fruits and vegetables," Secretary Vilsack recalled Mr. Obama telling him at the end of his Chicago interview. The USDA is now moving ahead with that pledge, Mr. Vilsack said in his keynote speech Sept. 10 at United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference.
Next month, new Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children food packages will, for the first time, include vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables, he said. For school-aged children, USDA is focused on providing more fruit and vegetable choices as Congress debates the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
For some kids, school meals are the only complete meals offered throughout the day, so USDA is focused on working with school districts to make sure there is a broad array of health choices, including fruits and vegetables, he noted.
The administration also is looking at ways to expand markets and plans to roll out later this month a new, "know your farmer, know your food" campaign, so consumers learn more about their foods and USDA can help with "the survival of rural America," he said.
"We must revitalize the rural economy by creating local markets," Secretary Vilsack told the more than 400 leaders of the produce industry attending the Washington meeting.
On the issue of food safety, Secretary Vilsack praised United Fresh's move to come out in front of support for food=safety legislation instead of taking a "wait-and-see approach." USDA and the Food & Drug Administration are working together to develop a prevention-based food safety system, he said.
The agriculture secretary then asked produce industry leaders to help USDA carry out its mission. He challenged companies to put aside 5 percent of their marketing budgets to develop public service announcements that encourage families to make healthy diet choices. Produce businesses can also help USDA identify "food deserts" -- regions of the county, whether in cities or in rural areas, where there are no supermarkets.
After his speech, Secretary Vilsack was asked what the Obama administration was doing to address the retaliatory Mexican tariffs imposed on U.S. products after Congress cut funding for a Mexican trucking program.
Mr. Vilsack said that he had spoken with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the importance of getting a proposal on the table that responds to truck safety concerns. "I've been assured [the Transportation Department] is working on a proposal," he said. In the meantime, USDA is looking for additional markets for U.S. products hard-hit by the tariffs, he said.
A tomato grower called attention to the plight of agricultural employers' problems in securing a legal and stable workforce, but the secretary offered no timeline on when immigration reform might be a top issue.
Immigration is one of those issues that lawmakers might find it easy to "kick the can down the road," he said, and immigration policy is "a very difficult issue for this country to discuss."
Right now, President Obama believes health care reform and climate change legislation are top priorities, but there is a need for changes in immigration policy, he added.