USDA Secretary Focuses On Food Stamps, Farming

You can't eat a government regulation or the paper it is printed on. But Agriculture Department rules shape what you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Host Michel Martin talks with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the food stamp program and the summit he's hosting in Hillsboro, Missouri tomorrow for ranchers, farmers and other businesses in rural America.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to start today's program talking about food - how it's grown, who farms it and what ends up on our plates. President Obama's agriculture secretary is with us to talk about how the government influences what children eat at school, what low income people eat at home and the quality of what everybody puts on their tables.

We'll ask him about a billion dollar government settlement with black farmers, too, and then we'll speak with one of those farmers about the discrimination he says he endured at the hands of the Agriculture Department in years past and what he'd like to see happen now.

First, though, the secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, he's joining us from Missoula, Montana. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: What takes you to Montana?

Sec. VILSACK: We had the first of our series of public discussions on the great American outdoors. An opportunity to put a showcase on some of the extraordinary outdoor activities we have in the United States, recreational activities and some of the great places we have in which to do it. The president is interested in making sure that Americans fully appreciate the natural resources that we have so that we do a better job of preserving and conserving them.

MARTIN: And I understand that you're also traveling to Missouri next for tomorrow's so-called National Rural Summit. What is that and why do we need one?

Sec. VILSACK: We need a rural summit in order for the rest of America to appreciate exactly what rural America does for all of us. Not only does it provide us our food, but it does so at a cost that gives Americans probably 10 to 15 percent more in their paychecks. Rural America is responsible for that.

It's also responsible for the growing amount of our fuel, hopefully severing our dependence on foreign oil and perhaps even on the oil that we have to drill in places that create environmental disasters.

And, finally, rural America is the place where we see a lot of young men and women sign up to become part of our military. Forty-five percent of those in uniform come from rural communities and small communities, even though it only represents about 16 percent of America's population.

MARTIN: I did want to ask you about one of the top new stories of the moment, of course, is the situation in the Gulf where this massive oil spill is continuing. And I did want to ask you about the impact on the food that comes from that area. How concerned are you that we'll be able to produce food from that area at any point in our future?

Sec. VILSACK: Well, at the present time, our focus today in terms of food is making sure that those who have lost their jobs, lost employment opportunities actually have the capacity to feed their families through our various food programs. So, we're doing everything that we can and that we know to do at this point in time to mitigate and prevent further damage and to try to protect as much of this food assets for this area as we possibly can.

We'll continue to monitor the situation as food is harvested. And we'll continue to make sure that we do our job to try to provide safety. But right now our focus is on making sure that we can mitigate as much damage as possible.

MARTIN: You know, one of the through lines of one of the things that you've been talking about here is how the rural economy contributes to the nation's overall health, both the health of the economy and the health of the people by producing healthy food.

But of course you know the Agriculture Department has long been criticized by some activists for emphasizing the interests of farmers and growers over the interests of consumers, particularly by subsidizing certain foodstuffs which aren't necessarily the most healthy and disadvantaging locally grown food, organic food and things of that sort.

So I just wanted to ask you about that. Do you think that that's true, first of all, and do you plan to address that balance?

Sec. VILSACK: I really don't think it's true. I think that the reality in America is that we need both, because there's a demand and need for both. I would say consumers do benefit from the way in which we structured our farm programs, at least as of today, because of the fact that our food is less expensive than it is any place else in the world. Folks in America have a great deal more discretion of what to do with their paycheck.

As it relates to locally grown foods, we have a very aggressive effort underway under our Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food effort to reconnect people with their food supply. Too many people are too many generations removed from someone who actually farms. Now, what we've done is we've sent teams of folks out to 15 different communities in an effort to try to begin the process of educating schools and hospitals and institutional purchases of food.

Precisely what is grown in the local area from both organic farmers, but also production agriculture? And in an effort to try to see if contracts can be made so that these markets are more local, as opposed to buying food from a distributor who may be a thousand miles away.

MARTIN: Switching gears for a minute, you have also talked about the issue of immigration reform. What's the Agriculture Department's stake in this issue? What would you like to see change?

Sec. VILSACK: Well, I think it's, again, an understanding out of the part of Americans that immigrants are responsible for probably picking or processing or producing at least 50 percent of the food that we consume every day. And if we were to lose that workforce, one of two things would have to happen. Either we would have to pay people considerably more to do the very difficult work of picking and packing and processing our foods, or we'd have to import more of our food. And we'd lose that economic advantage that we have that I talked about earlier.

But part of the problem with the discussion of immigration today is that it really doesn't relate to most ordinary Americans. They don't see what's in it for them. But when they realize that their food costs may go up, when they may be subjecting their families to potentially higher food safety risk because we don't have a comprehensive immigration reform, they might be more amenable to putting together the pressure on Congress to get this done and get it done soon.

MARTIN: How optimistic are you that that is going to happen, let's say this year, which is an election year for many members of Congress? And as of course you know, that this issue has become an extremely emotional and volatile one that just seems to evoke just tremendous, you know, feelings, for want of a better word.

Sec. VILSACK: It does because of the context of the conversation in which we are very judgmental about people's attitudes about immigration. You know, you're either a bigot or a racist for saying this or, you know, you don't understand the importance of culture, if you say that. The reality is this discussion has to be brought to a different level.

And that level is essentially that Americans themselves, each of us has a stake in this issue whether we realize it or not. And let the folks demagogue it if they wish, but my view is if you want higher food cost, you want food safety concerns from imported food and relying on others to feed your family or do you want Americans to be able to benefit from their own food supply and create wealth in their own communities and have a stronger and better America. It seems to me the answer is pretty clear.

MARTIN: And, finally, because I let you go, I want to ask you about one more issue that has been a very emotional and sensitive issue for quite some time.

On Friday Congress agreed to pay a $1.15 billion settlement to black farmers who cited, and the government eventually agreed, that they had experienced a decade's long pattern of discrimination by the Agriculture Department.

Now that this settlement has been reached, what assurances do people have that these practices won't continue?

Sec. VILSACK: Well, I've taken it upon myself as secretary of Agriculture to close this chapter. It's a very sordid and unfortunate chapter in USDA's history. We not only have attempted to resolve litigation and claims involving black farmers, but also women farmers and Hispanic farmers and also Native American farmers. And we will hopefully, over time, get those matters resolved as well.

In the meantime, we have commenced a complete review by an independent third party of all of our programs in both rural development and in the farm service agency area to determine whether or not there are any practices, procedures, processes that could lend themselves to potential continuation of any prejudice or biased activity in an effort to root out precisely what has caused these problems in the past.

We've also begun a very aggressive effort within USDA internally to make sure that our hiring practices, our promotion practices and just generally the way in which we treat each other is appropriate. So it's a three-pronged approach here. And an outside review of our policies and procedures for corrective action, an opportunity for us to make sure that we do what's right within our own and play base and also settling these claims.

MARTIN: Tom Vilsack is the secretary of Agriculture. He joined us from Missoula, Montana. Mr. Secretary, thank you for speaking with us.

Sec. VILSACK: You bet. Thank you.

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