(April 8, 10:02 a.m.) Kansas City, MO. – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Obama Administration is committed to expanding its focus on nutrition programs and local food production.

Vilsack said the Obama administration’s stimulus plan provides $20 billion in additional resources for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — food stamps — which translates to an extra $65 to $100 a month for households receiving benefits.

After speaking at the International Food Aid Conference April 7, The Packer asked Vilsack whether the federal government needed to create more incentives to boost fruit and vegetable consumption by program participants.

He said the stimulus package allows people to buy more fruits and vegetables and other food, driving more than $9 of economic activity with every $5 spent. Vilsack said the agency is focusing on nutrition in its near-term agenda.

“We will be making a major effort this year to discuss the need for more nutrition in people’s diet, particularly focusing on children,” he said.

He said reauthorization of the school lunch and breakfast programs provides a great opportunity to send that message, noting that President Obama’s budget calls for an additional $1 billion for those programs. He said the budget also reallocates other money to allow schools to purchase more fruits and vegetables.

Vilsack said the Obama administration embraces local food.

“We want folks to know their food and to know their farmers,” he said. “To be able to do that, we’re looking at creative ways to partners with farmers markets to promote local production.”

For example, he said there are a number of communities that are experimenting with providing benefit discounts with the purchase of fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

What’s more, he said the agency is looking at creating small enterprise loan and grant programs to help local growers consolidate supplies and potentially build distribution centers to pool their crops to meet the needs of larger customers.

“We want those farmers to grow and help repopulate rural America, and one way we can do that is by creating additional markets,” he said.

Vilsack said the administration is motivated to make sure eligible participants receive needed information on nutrition programs — only two-thirds of those eligible for SNAP are in the program.

Vilsack declined to answer a question of whether he supports a single agency for food safety oversight. That decision can’t happen, he said, until the leaders of the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services — also tabbed for a USDA working group on food safety — are confirmed.

While not speculating about the findings working group, Vilsack did find fault with the way food safety issues are going now.

“When you 75 million Americans who have a foodborne illness incident at some point during the year, and 325,000 of them are hospitalized and 5,000 ends up dying, you have to recognize you have to take a look at every aspect of food safety,” he said, quoting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. “It behooves us to take a look at this because there are 15 different agencies involved.”

In any event, he said better lines of communication are needed between agencies on food safety issues.

“There needs to be a conversation about organization structure and I think you will see the working group address that,” he said.

The working group is meeting only at the staff level, but Vilsack said he expects decisions relatively quickly on the issue, considering the urgency of food safety issues with members of Congress, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Vilsack vows commitment to nutrition programs
Patrick Webb (from left), dean for academic affairs at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Boston, Mass., visits with Nina Schlossman, president of the Global Food and Nutrition Inc., Washington, D.C., and Patrick Kole, vice president of legal and governmental affairs with the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, on April 7 at the International Food Aid Conference in Kansas City, Mo.

Tom Karst