Tom Vilsack just may get it.

by: Nancy E. Roman, President & CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America

February 3, 2021

Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden's pick to lead the USDA While some in the nutrition community were disappointed when President Biden tapped Tom Vilsack to once again lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his testimony this week leaves room for optimism.

“Our nation also suffers from nutrition insecurity,” he testified before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. “We must do more to ensure access to the nutritious foods that can protect and promote health. Making stronger, more resilient connections between our nutrition assistance and local and regional food systems is critical to winning this public health battle.”

That lone section — from a mere 140 word paragraph of his testimony — gives three reasons for optimism:

1. The use of the phrase “nutrition assistance,” over “food assistance,” is a sign that the Biden Administration will emphasize not just calories to people, but nutritious food to people.

This is critical since the nation’s charitable food system relies heavily on unsold groceries, much of which are calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods. PHA’s Healthy Hunger Relief initiative works with food banks throughout the U.S. to improve the nutritional quality of their inventories. PHA’s 28 food bank partners reach more than 7 million food insecure individuals across 19 states and have increased the amount of healthy food distributed by 115 million pounds, while eliminating 19 million pounds of junk/snack food from their inventories.

2. He acknowledges that charitable food systems develop in the context of broader local and regional food systems, which shape and influence charitable food distribution.

Can we move beyond just the charitable food system and challenge ourselves to leverage the food system for affordable nutritious retail access? At PHA, we believe 2020’s disruption in technology and delivery allows for new innovation. We are challenging the for-profit food system and entrepreneurs to bring new ideas and solutions. PHA will continue convening retailers in 2021 to discuss barriers to entry, building on our groundbreaking announcement with Ahold-Delhaize in 2020, which promotes healthier sales and creates transparency in the market.

3. The biggest reason for hope is that Vilsack sees the charitable food system as connected to our public health battle.

At PHA, our entire mission is “transforming the food landscape in pursuit of health equity.” For far too long, we have failed to recognize the power of good food to build health, and the power of poor food to undermine it. If the emergency food system is connected to the public health battle, then nutrition outcomes will need to be coequal — or better yet — superior to measures of pounds distributed.

The early read is that Vilsack and his team understand the challenge and opportunity — now let’s hope they put resources behind it. PHA stands ready to help.