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December 29, 2008

Set the Table for Change

A few weeks ago, President-elect Barack Obama announced that former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack would be his selection for Agriculture Secretary, disappointing at least some of the interest groups focused on a food reform agenda for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and continuing his pattern of highly conventional and predictable selections for cabinet posts.  We’ve always liked Vilsack, and we endorsed him for the post.  The former Iowa governor had a strong record on many animal protection issues that came up in Iowa—everything from cracking down on animal fighting to vetoing legislation that would have classified puppy mill dogs as "farm products" and allowed mourning dove hunting in the state.  In his new post, Vilsack will have to confront major food policy issues, and we'll be advocating strongly for a fresh new perspective at the agency.Cowfield2

Last week, Kim Severson wrote in The New York Times that there’s another position that’s drawing unprecedented attention: White House chef.  That’s because the buzz surrounding America's top chef has become a proxy debate about the future of American food policy.  Food reform advocates are pressing hard to persuade President-elect Barack Obama and his wife to choose a White House chef who exemplifies the best progressive thought about organic, sustainable, and ethical eating—and even to have an organic garden on the White House grounds.

The man who got the ball rolling was journalist and best-selling author Michael Pollan, whose October “Open Letter to the Future Farmer in Chief” in the New York Times Magazine got the attention of candidate Obama.  Obama’s subsequent comments to Time magazine revealed a keen understanding of the crisis in food policy, and, I think, emboldened activist constituents with an interest in broadening the mission of the agency from promoting production agriculture to helping produce and consume healthy food.

Pollan spoke for many who would like to substitute a new and dynamic agency built around a national food policy that’s better for people, animals, and the environment.  He insists, and he's correct, that we can only address issues of national security, climate change, energy policy, and public health by revamping policies at USDA.

Others followed suit.  In a letter sent the day after Obama’s election victory, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse put forward the idea of a “kitchen cabinet” to advise the president on food and food policy matters.  Days later, some 90 signatories, including Waters, Pollan, writer and professor Marion Nestle, rancher Bill Niman, and journalist and author Eric Schlosser sent Obama a letter urging the appointment of a Secretary of Agriculture knowledgeable and supportive of such concerns as decentralization of food systems and assistance for local farmers’ markets.

Like other presidential couples before them, the Obamas have acknowledged their desire to make the White House a model and a symbol of their values, and a place that, as Michelle Obama told 60 Minutes, would “feel open and fun and full of life and energy."  The President-elect has expressed his support for family farming and organic agriculture, and Michelle Obama is reportedly a fan of organic food, as is Laura Bush.

Just seven people have held the position of White House chef since John F. Kennedy took office in 1961.  Before then, presidents and their spouses generally had a family cook to prepare their daily meals while state dinners were catered.  Since Kennedy’s time, however, the custom has been for the First Lady to select the chef who creates the meals and menus that will represent the administration’s style and taste to visitors and guests from all over the world.  In our day, what is personal is political, and the selection of a progressive chef will speak to all Americans and, to a lesser degree, to the world about the importance of our food choices in making the world more liveable.

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