The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the country’s authority on food, agriculture, and nutrition. The Department is made up of 29 agencies, an office with almost 100,000 employees, and a budget of more than US$20 billion. Therefore, the Secretary of Agriculture has a great deal of influence over the policies and initiatives that govern the nation’s food system.
The current Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is the fourth-longest serving Secretary in history, and he has built a strong legacy over the past several years. He chaired the first-ever White House Rural Council to improve services for rural businesses, and the USDA has helped increase the number of farmers' markets in the United States by 180 percent since 2006. Vilsack helped pass the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act to combat child hunger and obesity, and he has worked to attract and support young farmers in agriculture careers.
With the Obama Administration coming to a close, a new Secretary of Agriculture will be presiding over the USDA next year. Food Tank has hand-picked visionaries in the food system whose experience and qualifications make them ideal choices for the next Secretary of Agriculture. Here are our recommendations:
Ben Burkett: As the President of the National Family Farm Coalition, Ben Burkett leads the organization in implementing initiatives to support small and medium family farms. He is a fourth-generation farmer who grows vegetables on 300 acres in southern Mississippi, but he still manages to play a leading role in numerous national and regional organizations. He is the Director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, which is the local arm of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and he is a member of the Community Food Security Coalition and Via Campesina. Through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, he supports African American farm families in the South and works to develop economically self-sufficient rural communities. Burkett won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2014 for his lifelong support of the family farm and his food access advocacy.
Jason Clay: Jason Clay is currently the Senior Vice President of Markets and Food and the Executive Director of the Markets Institute at WWF. In that role, he identifies global issues and trends that affect the organization’s conservation work, with a focus on agriculture, seafood, and forests. He previously served as a Social Science Analyst for the USDA and various other positions with WWF. He also invented Rainforest Marketing, one of the first fair-trade ecolabels in the U.S., and co-created Rainforest Crunch and more than 200 other products. He was the first National Geographic Food and Agriculture Fellow and won a 2012 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for his work on global food sustainability.
Debra Eschmeyer: In 2015, Debra Eschmeyer was appointed Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative to improve childhood health and nutrition. She is also the Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at the White House. Before serving the Obama Administration, she co-founded FoodCorps, a national AmeriCorps service program that aims to combat childhood obesity and food insecurity while training future food leaders. She also served as Communications and Outreach Director of the National Farm to School Network and started a produce farm in Ohio. She was selected as one of the Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink by Fortune and Food & Wine in 2014 and earned a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2011 for her work with school food reform.
Craig Hanson: Craig Hanson serves as the Global Director of Food, Forests & Water at the World Resources Institute, which works to solve the global challenges relating to food, forests, water, climate, energy, and cities. The organization is active in more than 50 countries addressing economic development and environmental issues. As the Global Director of Food, Forests & Water, Hanson co-developed several initiatives, including the Food Loss and Waste Protocol and Champions 12.3 to reduce food waste. He also co-authored the current World Resources Report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future.
Lindsey Lusher Shute: Lindsey Lusher Shute co-founded the National Young Farmers Coalition in 2009 to address the challenges that young farmers face when starting a farm business. She is now the Executive Director of the organization, which represents, mobilizes, and engages young farmers to help them be successful. Lusher Shute owns and operates Hearty Roots Farm in the Hudson Valley in New York with her husband, and she speaks on family farm issues. In 2014, she was named a Champion of Change by the White House for her work to build a strong future for the next generation of farmers.
Kathleen Merrigan: During her tenure as the U.S. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan made a significant impact. She created the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative to support local food systems, she helped design First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, and she was the first woman to chair the Ministerial Conference of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). After her time at the USDA, Merrigan took on the role of Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University (GWU). She also leads the GW Sustainability Collaborative, is the Director of the Food Institute, and teaches public policy. In addition, she holds advisory roles with a variety of organizations, including AGree, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2010 and won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2012.
Denise O’Brien: Denise O’Brien founded the Women Food & Ag Network (WFAN) in 1997 to serve as a platform for women to share information, connections, and support in order to be successful in sustainable agriculture. She has been a farmer in southern Iowa for the past several decades, growing fruits and vegetables and raising organic chickens and turkeys with her husband. She previously served as the President of the National Family Farm Coalition and a USDA Advisor in Afghanistan. She was awarded the 2005 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iowa Farmer’s Union.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree: Representing the state of Maine, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is an advocate for improving the national food system. She introduced the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act to reform agricultural policy and expand opportunities for local farmers, and many of the provisions from that bill were included in the Farm Bill. She is now focusing on her Food Recovery Act, which aims to reduce food waste by standardizing date labeling, among other proposals. Congresswoman Pingree previously served four terms in the Maine State Senate and went on to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress from Maine’s First Congressional District. She also operates an organic farm and lodge in North Haven, Maine.
Speaker Paul Ryan: Speaker Paul Ryan has been representing Wisconsin’s First Congressional District for nine terms. He was born and raised in Wisconsin and has served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Budget Committee. He began serving as House Speaker in 2015. Ryan recognizes the importance of the agriculture industry, which provides more than 10 percent of the state of Wisconsin’s employment. The state, nicknamed “America’s Dairyland,” is the second largest producer of dairy in the country. Ryan believes that high-spending federal agricultural programs need to be re-examined, and that taxpayers should no longer be financing the agriculture sector.
Senator Jon Tester: As an active third-generation Montana farmer, Senator Jon Tester advocates for his state’s farmers and ranchers. He served in the Montana Senate before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. Since then, he has influenced a number of agricultural victories. He introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act to assist producers starting out in agriculture. Several of these policies were incorporated into the Farm Bill. He also sponsored a measure in the 2007 Farm Bill to require the labeling of meat with the country of origin.