Secretary Tom Vilsack's Interview with Billy Shore

As part of our 2021 Rural Child Hunger Summit, our founder and executive chair Billy Shore interviewed Secretary of Agriculture and the event’s keynote speaker, Tom Vilsack about rural hunger and the future of American policy.

(This Q&A has been shortened for space. To view the full keynote from Secretary Vilsack as well as the full Q&A, you can find the video here)

Billy Shore: 

Hunger in the United States, particularly childhood hunger, is a solvable problem. We have no shortage of food, no shortage of food programs, but it's been a matter of political will. It seems like this is a moment where there is more political will to get big things done. There was a new $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and, just this morning, we read about a proposed $3 trillion investment in infrastructure.

When it comes to rural hunger, what could we be doing to help build the political will necessary to get big policies enacted?

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack looking at the screen

Secretary Tom Vilsack: 

You know, Billy, one of the challenges in a crisis is the fact that you kind of want to hunker down. I mean, we literally had to go into our homes and sort of disconnect ourselves from our friends and our neighbors and our family during this crisis, which is actually the opposite of what we need to do. In terms of responding to this crisis, we need to engage it. We need to recognize the opportunity it creates for transformational change.

This crisis exposed so much about our country. It exposed the fact that our food system is not as reliable and resilient as it needs to be. It exposed the fact that so many families were on the edge to begin with, and COVID basically pushed them over the edge. 

So once you have an understanding of the cracks that have been shown as a result of this, then I think it is up to us, this generation of Americans, to respond to that challenge just in the same way that previous generations of Americans have responded to the big challenges they face, whether it's a Depression or World War. This is our opportunity to provide a legacy of this generation to future generations in this country.

To do this. I think you have to transform the American economy. I think that's why in addition to what we've done on the COVID relief effort, we've got to compliment that with a bold plan to rebuild the economy of this country, starting with our infrastructure.

In rural places, it means really transforming the entire agricultural economy of this country. And I think frankly the other challenge that we face that we have to meet is the climate challenge. 

There are tremendous opportunities to create new jobs, new income sources in rural places, by responding aggressively to the challenge of climate. At the same time, creating the kind of economy that allows families not to have to need a SNAP program, not to have the assistance and help of a stimulus check or unemployment compensation, because people are employed. People are working hard, people are making a decent living and they can basically support their families. I think it starts with the economy.

Billy Shore: 

Under your previous leadership at the USDA, we got much better at making sure that kids who needed the meals that they were eligible for were getting them and their families were getting the support they needed through programs like SNAP and WIC. 

But what you just said, I think is an important challenge for all of us, because you're saying we need to go beyond that. We need to help prevent hunger in the first place, and we need to get to the root causes of why families, rural or urban, are struggling. I think that means that we need to expand our own advocacy to not just be focused on nutrition programs, but rather these larger economic issues. Is that fair?

Secretary Vilsack:

That's absolutely right. I think it's a dual challenge. We don't want you to give up and take the foot off the gas in terms of putting pressure on our leaders to do what's right in the school nutrition programs, making sure that they improve, that they’re accessible and conveniently available. 

We want to make sure we don't stigmatize youngsters who are in these programs. I think that's one of the reasons why we went to universal, free lunch during the summer months, and in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to try to figure out if that's something that could be extended for the next school year, given the crisis. 

But at the root of it, you got to have an economy that puts people to work. You have to have an economy that doesn't decimate the middle-class but builds it back up. […]

• How do we look at the new Childcare Credit that was passed as part of the American Rescue Plan? How do we make that permanent? That's pretty important. That's $1,600 to a family that could really make a difference in terms of their ability to make ends meet. 

•How do we make sure that childcare is available and affordable? 

•How do we make sure that that college is available and affordable in this new economy? 

These are really big issues. They require resources and commitments. But I think our country's future depends on our ability to focus on these at this point in time. 

It also means the equity issue. The fact is that systemic racism in this country has cost, according to one study, $16 trillion to our economy over the last 20 years. And if we were simply providing equitable relief to folks, it would add another $5 trillion to our GDP. Now, think about that. Think about how many people would be employed well and paid well, and how fewer people would have to rely on programs like SNAP instead of, as we see now, 43 million Americans, 14 million of whom are children. 

We should be focused on a holistic and comprehensive approach to this. Not just simply focusing on one aspect of it but, as you say, going to the root causes of it. 

Billy Shore: 

Secretary. You've been very generous with your time. I wish we could talk longer. I'm inspired by your leadership as always. Know that you've got at least a thousand folks here from community organizations all around this country.