Senate confirms Vilsack as agriculture secretary

WASHINGTON Tue Jan 20, 2009 4:39pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate confirmed former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as U.S. agriculture secretary on Tuesday, a job he plans to use to promote renewable energy including biofuels and put healthier food in America's school meals.

Vilsack was among five of President Obama's cabinet nominees to be approved on a unanimous vote a couple of hours after Obama took office.

With 100,000 employees, the Agriculture Department has a portfolio that ranges from antihunger programs like food stamps to running the national forests, paying crop subsidies, promoting farm exports, aiding rural economic development and directing agricultural research.

Nearly one-fifth of Americans live in rural America.

As secretary, Vilsack, 57, will face two tasks immediately -- working with Congress to renew USDA's child nutrition programs, which cost more than $15 billion a year, and deciding whether to tighten USDA's eligibility rules for farm subsidies.

During his confirmation hearing last week, Vilsack said the child nutrition programs, which include school lunch and breakfast, could be a tool for ending childhood hunger by 2015, a goal set by Obama. He said he wanted to bring more fruits and vegetables into schools and more locally grown food.

The related Women, Infants and Children feeding program, costing $6 billion a year, also needs reauthorization this year.

Obama has backed a $250,000-a-year "hard" cap on crop subsidies "so we help family farmers" and closing loopholes that allow "megafarms to get around payment limits."

A lawyer, Vilsack has no direct experience in agriculture but during two terms as Iowa governor, ending in 2006, was active on agricultural issues.

The last farmer to serve as agriculture secretary was Jack Block, of Illinois, in the early 1980s, in the Reagan era.

(Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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