# Food Policy

Congressional roundup: Funding the government, food safety and START

The U.S. Senate approved a continuing resolution today to fund the federal government at current levels through March 4, 2011. Both the cloture motion and the bill itself passed by large bipartisan majorities; Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley voted for the cloture motion and the funding resolution. Harkin slammed Republicans for blocking the fiscal year 2011 omnibus bill last week, because unlike the continuing resolution approved today, the omnibus bill would have increased funding for programs such as Head Start, child care subsidies, meals for seniors and drugs for AIDS patients. The House of Representatives is expected to approve the continuing resolution later today to stop the government from running out of money at midnight. UPDATE: The House approved the spending bill by 193 to 165, with 75 representatives not voting. All five Iowans voted, and they split along party lines.

A bigger problem will come in March, when House Republicans force through major cuts in domestic spending (probably with the eager cooperation of President Barack Obama). Those will be a drag on the economy, erasing any stimulative effect from the lousy deal Obama struck on extending the Bush tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the House gave final approval to the food safety bill today on a mostly party-line vote of 215 to 144. Iowa’s representatives split the usual way, with Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell voting for the bill and Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voting against it. I am still surprised that the Senate resurrected the food safety bill on Sunday. I have yet to see any explanation for why Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma agreed to let it pass. Coburn had been that bill’s most vocal opponent in the Senate all year. It’s not as if Coburn suddenly decided to stop being a jerk; he appears ready to block the 9/11 responders bill from becoming law during the lame-duck session. Even some Fox News commentators are upset about that political maneuver.

The Senate took a step toward ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) today. Eleven Republicans joined all Democrats present to approve a cloture motion on that treaty, which the U.S. and Russia signed in April. Grassley voted with most of his GOP colleagues against the cloture motion on START; he has voted for various Republican amendments offered to the treaty. I haven’t seen any statement from his office explaining his opposition. The last START expired in December 2009, and we need to ratify the new treaty in order to resume inspecting Russian nuclear bases. There could hardly be a more important national security issue. Ronald Reagan’s former chief arms control negotiator said last month that Iran and North Korea were the “only two governments in the world that wouldn’t like to see this treaty ratified.”

Farm Bill Platform Plank

WHEREAS, the Commodity Title of the US farm bill is the largest and most important part of the farm bill, in terms of economic impact in the United States and worldwide;1 and
WHEREAS, farm program crops, like corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans, lack price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides,2 leading in the 20th century to chronic low prices, except for three significant price spikes upward;3 and
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House votes to extend most Bush tax cuts, passes child nutrition act

The House of Representatives voted today to extend the Bush tax cuts affecting individuals earning less than $200,000 annually and families earning less than $250,000. The vote was 234 to 188, mostly along party lines. Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell all voted for the bill, while Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voted against it. If you click on the roll call, you might notice the vote was on a “Motion to Concur in the Senate Amendment with an Amendment” to the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2010, Part III. Adding the tax cut language to this vehicle, instead of introducing a new bill, was done to deny Republicans the chance to make a motion to recommit and attach the rest of the Bush tax cuts. David Waldman walks you through the House procedural weeds.

Only three House Republicans voted for this bill, which would permanently extend the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of filers. Every recent poll shows a minority want to extend the tax cuts for the top income levels. It’s disgusting that Republicans can’t accept even this bill, which gives more money back to wealthier people anyway.

The White House response to today’s vote was even more disgraceful:

“The President continues to believe that extending middle class tax cuts is the most important thing we can do for our economy right now and he applauds the House for passing a permanent extension.  But, because Republicans have made it clear that they won’t pass a middle class extension without also extending tax cuts for the wealthy, the President has asked Director Lew and Secretary Geithner to work with Congress to find a way forward.  Those discussions started just yesterday and are continuing this afternoon.  The talks are ongoing and productive, but any reports that we are near a deal in the tax cuts negotiations are inaccurate and premature.”

Who still believes that Barack Obama wants to win this battle? He isn’t even trying. I wonder if he’s been planning to cave on this issue all along.

Meanwhile, the House passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 today by a vote of 264 to 157. All Iowa Democrats voted yes, as did Latham (one of just 17 Republicans to cross the aisle on this issue). King voted no, along with most of the Republican caucus. The Senate passed this bill by unanimous consent in August. It would improve the school lunch program and fund other child nutrition programs, but unfortunately food stamp funding was used to cover part of the cost. Senator Tom Harkin’s office summarized the bill’s provisions, and I’ve posted that statement after the jump. Referring to the food stamp funding, Harkin states, “President Obama, however, has committed to work with Congress to replace this offset before these SNAP [food stamp] cuts take place in November 2013.” I wouldn’t count on the president keeping that promise in light of today’s White House statement on tax cuts.

UPDATE: Senator Tom Harkin said on December 2 that if Obama caves on the Bush tax cuts, “He would then just be hoping and praying that Sarah Palin gets the nomination.”

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Thicke on tv and other news from the secretary of agriculture race

Despite the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that made national news two months ago, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture race has been overshadowed this fall by campaigns for other offices and the unprecedented drive to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices. In fact, Democrat Francis Thicke’s campaign has attracted more interest from nationally-known sustainable food advocates than from many Iowa news organizations. Peter Rothberg wrote in The Nation, “there may not be a more important contest this year for farmers and food activists nationwide.”

Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has been running television commercials for several weeks, but Thicke starts running his own campaign ad in the Des Moines market today. His campaign has an opportunity to increase the ad buy, and due to an unusual situation I’ll cover below, any additional air time Thicke reserves will reduce Northey’s television exposure during the final days of the campaign.

Commercials for Northey and Thicke are after the jump.

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Branstad & Grassley: Bad for Iowa's Economy

The farm policies of Branstad and Grassley have hurt our states' economy. They've been bad for wealth creation and jobs creation.  They've been antibusiness and antifarmer. They have not been up to responding to major crises, like the 1980s farm crisis.
 Branstad, for example, argued that there was no farm crisis.  The headline in The Gazette Cedar Rapids, July 10, 1984 “Branstad says Reagan right:  Farmers well off.” 
 Grassley was a major supporter of the Republican Welfare State, corporate welfare, that is. The Reagan farm bill he supported increased farm subsidies, but lowered market prices even more. We exported more, but at a greater loss per bushel (and less total export value).
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Thicke backs Maine model for egg safety rules

Democratic candidate for Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke is calling for regulations “modeled after a program that has been used successfully in Maine for more than 22 years to return integrity to Iowa-produced eggs.” Thicke introduced the proposal during his September 11 debate with Republican incumbent Bill Northey. Excerpt from his opening statement:

The State of Maine’s egg safety program complements the new [Food and Drug Administration] egg rule and shores up weaknesses in the federal rule. Specifically, the Maine program has three features that go beyond the requirements of the new FDA egg rule: 1) An effective program for vaccination of laying hens; 2) Monthly inspection of laying facilities for sanitation, and testing for Salmonella within the building; and 3) Egg testing when Salmonella is found in the building.

I’ve posted the full text of Thicke’s opening statement after the jump. Gabe Licht covered the debate for the Spencer Daily Reporter, and Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent. Northey defended his record on egg safety, denying his department had the authority to inspect the feed mill suspected in the salmonella outbreak:

Thicke reiterated the secretary of agriculture should inspect feed mills, noting the [Jack] DeCoster feed mill filled 12,500 semi loads annually.

“First of all, there is a distinct word in there,” Northey fired back. “… Commercial feed mills that sell feed. The reason that we do that is to actually protect the consumer of those that are buying feed from others. Our regulations are actually not for food safety, but are for protection of consumers… We have been told … this mill does not sell feed — that birds at the other facility are owned by DeCoster as well… Just as we don’t go to a farmer mixing his own feed, we do not go to those mills that are producing feed for private facilities or on their own facilities.”

“The secretary of agriculture has the authority to make rules to cover loopholes and this is a DeCoster loophole playing a shell game and we should not play that game with him,” Thicke said.

The incumbent had pointed words for his rival.

“Unless you know something we need to know more about the situation …, it would be important to … wait for the information and be able to find out whether they were actually in violation of that or not,” Northey said. “… We don’t just make decisions on large facilities different than others because our rule says we are to inspect commercial facilities selling feed to others, not facilities of a certain size.”

Thicke has said Iowa Department of Agriculture rule-making could have closed the loopholes that allowed DeCoster’s feed mill to avoid state inspections.

The secretary of agriculture candidates also clashed over agricultural zoning:

Although both candidates were clear that there is enough room in Iowa for all types of sizes of agriculture, and that they would support all aspects of the industry, a major difference between them was exposed while answering a question regarding local control of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) placement.

“Absolutely,” said Thicke, who argued that allowing local government to decide the site of CAFOs would not add additional regulations for owners, who already must follow county building policies, but would allow local residents control over their environment.

Northey disagreed and stated that agribusinesses “need one set of rules,” otherwise there would be “a real challenge” in getting any new developments approved.

Thicke, who formerly served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, sympathized with country residents who had to live near “toxic fumes,” while Northey sympathized with producers “who have been demonized.”

Speaking of local control, last week Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now wrote about the connection between DeCoster’s operations and Iowa’s 1995 law protecting CAFOs from zoning at the county level:

After initially rising from poverty in Maine with a small chicken operation, DeCoster’s run-ins with New England legal authorities led him to flee to Iowa, where he ventured into building hog confinements and factory farm egg facilities just in time to coincide with that state’s loosening of the environmental regulations in 1995, with the passing of House File 519, which stripped all local authority from regulating factory farms.

The passage of this piece of legislation single-handedly pushed more independent hog farmers out of farming in Iowa, the nation’s number one hog and egg producer, than any other law in the state’s history. Since 1994, the year prior to the passage of H.F. 519, Iowa has lost nearly 72% of the state’s hog farmers, as the number has dropped from 29,000 to 8,300 today. As part of the industry trend, hogs moved off pasture into massive warehouse-style confinements, hundreds of which Jack DeCoster built across much of central Iowa, laying the foundation for a “protein” producing empire that included pork, eggs and a steady stream of state and federal violations.

That would be a great issue to use against Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad, in an alternate world where the Culver-Judge administration and the Democratic-controlled Iowa legislature had done something to advance local control during the past four years.

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Egg recall news: Northey and Thicke to debate, Sierra Club wants broad investigation

Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey will debate his Democratic challenger Francis Thicke on September 11, the Thicke campaign announced today. The Spencer Daily Reporter is sponsoring the debate, which will take place from 11 am to 12:30 pm at the Clay County Fairgrounds, during this weekend’s county fair. The Thicke campaign’s press release states that the Spencer public access cable channel will broadcast the debate, but I hope Iowa Public Television and other media organizations will bring the exchange to a wider audience. Thicke argues,

Iowa voters deserve a full discussion of the issues that are important in this campaign – protecting water and air quality; local food production; local control over – and reducing the impacts of – concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); more diversity on the landscape, including more use of cover and perennial crops; and truly sustainable, renewable, farmer-owned energy systems for agriculture.

Thicke is seeking five debates with Northey, one in each of Iowa’s Congressional districts, but details about other possible meetings have not been finalized. The candidates clashed last week over the Iowa secretary of agriculture’s responsibility to inspect feed mills like the one where a recent salmonella outbreak seems to have originated.

Northey has won the endorsement of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, while Thicke has the Iowa Farmers Union’s endorsement. Last month Thicke published the questionnaire he completed for the Farm Bureau Federation and called on Northey to do the same, so that “so that Iowa voters can determine for themselves where each candidate stands on critical farm issues.”

In related news, today the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club sent an open letter to Attorney General Tom Miller requesting a “thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the egg recall for shell eggs produced by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms Inc for violations of state law. This investigation should also include Quality Egg LLC Feed Mill, the supplier of the feed to both egg producers.” I’ve posted the full text of the letter after the jump. It includes a detailed list of facts supporting the Sierra Club’s view that the egg producers showed “reckless disregard for the health and well-being of the public.” To prevent similar violations in the future, the Sierra Club is also asking the Attorney General’s Office to consider possible “internal policy changes, legislative needs, and administrative rule changes.”

Miller recently returned a $10,000 campaign donation that Peter DeCoster made in 2005. DeCoster’s father owns the company at the center of the egg recall.

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Northey ignorant about Iowa Code and other egg recall news

Following up on yesterday’s post, the recall of half a billion Iowa-produced eggs continues to reverberate in Iowa politics.

Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey still denies that he could have done more to ensure food safety regulations were followed at the DeCoster facilities. Northey’s opponent, Francis Thicke, has said feed mill inspections “could have identified a strain of Salmonella Enteritidis before 1,470 Americans were sickened and a half billion eggs were recalled.”

Meanwhile, the non-profit Food Democracy Now announced that two major supermarket chains have agreed to stop selling eggs produced by Jack DeCoster’s operations.

Details and more links are after the jump.

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Revive the Iowa Food Policy Council

Over the weekend I talked with lots of people who attended the Community Food Security Coalition’s annual conference in Des Moines. Good programs in Iowa and other states are encouraging more people to eat food produced on nearby farms. Iowans have long supported our farmer’s markets, but we could be doing more to promote and expand our local food networks.

One step in the right direction would be for Governor Chet Culver to revive the Iowa Food Policy Council, which functioned from 2001 to 2004. (The council’s reports are available here.) Hear me out after the jump.

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Help Food Democracy Now! advocate for the change we need

Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement that didn’t even exist a few months ago, has collected more than 86,000 signatures from Americans who support change in our country’s food and agriculture policies:

Food Democracy Now! is a grassroots movement initiated by farmers, writers, chefs, eaters and policy advocates who recognize the profound sense of urgency in creating a new food system that is capable of meeting the changing needs of American society as it relates to food, health, animal welfare and the environment.

As such, we are dedicated to advancing the dialogue on food, family farm, environmental and sustainability issues at the legislative and policy level. We understand the dynamic interplay between today’s industrialized agricultural system and its impacts on human health and well-being, health care costs, rural communities and the environment. We advocate for policies that encourage sustainable, humane, organic and natural food systems.

We seek to transform today’s system by advancing best practices in food production, animal husbandry, conservation of natural resources, renewable energy and soil preservation. Through these efforts we hope to stimulate local food systems, promote rural economic development, encourage a new generation of farmers and respond to the growing public demand for wholesome, fairly-produced food. We will also support candidates who advance this vision and who embrace common sense policies that respect our nation’s air, water, soil, livestock, food workers, consumers and family farmers.

Click here and scroll down the page for background on the people who founded Food Democracy Now! Click here to view the list of the petition’s 90 original signers.

Next week Food Democracy Now! plans to deliver the petition to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, so they are pushing to reach a goal of 100,000 signatures.

If you haven’t done so already, go sign the petition, then ask a few of your friends to sign too.

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More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

I don’t recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are much more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

Tom Vilsack’s friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the “best possible” choice for secretary of agriculture.

Denise O’Brien urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow of Elkhart, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, “to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals.”  

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. “Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon.”

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: “Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates.”

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: “Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults.”

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. “Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health.”

Tagtow’s suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa’s fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:


[…] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a “Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture” originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org), launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here: http://www.cfra.org/08/grassro…

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it’s helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs’ proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn’t given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a “Stop Vilsack” petition.

This strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack’s position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure Vilsack’s confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack’s nomination:

I’m glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I’m glad. This way they don’t get their due by ‘vetoing’ a Surgeon General’s warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, “Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?”

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week’s little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we’d have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson’s now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what’s so terribly wrong with our system. There’s one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler’s firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He’s repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over “organic”). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark’s non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he’s also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don’t get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. (UPDATE: Daily Kos user Halcyon informed me that Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.)

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack’s nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

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New thread on Obama cabinet appointments and speculation (updated)

UPDATE: Barack Obama announced the key appointments in his energy and environmental team today. Meteor Blades has a good piece up on the “Green Team” of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “energy czar” Carol Browner, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson and head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley.

On Saturday Obama devoted his weekly address to the housing crisis (click the link to watch the video) and announced that New York City Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development Shaun Donovan will serve as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in his cabinet. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York commented,

Shaun Donovan has been one of the most effective housing commissioners in New York City’s history. At this time, with the housing crisis raging, he is exactly the kind of person we need as HUD secretary.

Sam Dillon of the New York Times discussed some possibilities for Secretary of Education and noted,

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to announce his choice for education secretary, there is mystery not only about the person he will choose, but also about the approach to overhauling the nation’s schools that his selection will reflect.

Despite an 18-month campaign for president and many debates, there remains uncertainty about what Mr. Obama believes is the best way to improve education.

Will he side with those who want to abolish teacher tenure and otherwise curb the power of teachers’ unions? Or with those who want to rewrite the main federal law on elementary and secondary education, the No Child Left Behind Act, and who say the best strategy is to help teachers become more qualified?

UPDATE: Obama reportedly plans to nominate Arne Duncan, the head of Chicago’s public school system, as Secretary of Education. Duncan is also a longtime friend of Obama’s.

Meanwhile, nearly 45,000 people have signed this online petition at Food Democracy Now. Excerpt:

As our nation’s future president, we hope that you will take our concerns under advisement when nominating our next Secretary of Agriculture because of the crucial role this Secretary will play in revitalizing our rural economies, protecting our nation’s food supply and our environment, improving human health and well-being, rescuing the independent family farmer, and creating a sustainable renewable energy future.

We believe that our nation is at a critical juncture in regard to agriculture and its impact on the environment and that our next Secretary of Agriculture must have a broad vision for our collective future that is greater than what past appointments have called for.

Presently, farmers face serious challenges in terms of the high costs of energy, inputs and land, as well as continually having to fight an economic system and legislative policies that undermine their ability to compete in the open market. The current system unnaturally favors economies of scale, consolidation and market concentration and the allocation of massive subsidies for commodities, all of which benefit the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has set a goal of 100,000 signatures for this petition.

Steph Larsen discussed some names on the short list for Secretary of Agriculture here. Sustainable agriculture advocates would love to see the job offered to Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs. Hassebrook wrote this guest opinion for the Des Moines Register a few weeks ago, saying

Nothing better illustrates the broken politics of Washington than farm and rural policy. The federal government spends billions subsidizing mega farms to drive smaller farms off the land and often penalizes the best environmental stewards with lower payments. It largely fails to invest in the future of America’s rural communities.

For example, in 2005 the Department of Agriculture spent nearly twice as much to subsidize the 260 biggest farms across 13 leading farm states than on rural development initiatives to create economic opportunity for the 3 million people living in those states’ 260 most struggling rural counties. That does not help family farms or small-town Americans. It does not serve the common good.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is among those who want to see Obama nominate a “secretary of food” with a broad vision for agriculture. He named Hassebrook as a good candidate for the job.

The Center for Rural Affairs has launched its own online petition asking Obama’s future Secretary of Agriculture, whoever that may be, to promote a new vision for rural America. It’s a long petition, advocating priorities such as:

policies to support grassroots entrepreneurship in rural America, such as the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, the Value Added Producer Grant Program, and the Farmers Market Promotion Program;

a plan to get affordable high-speed internet service to every rural business and home;

policies to support local ownership of wind turbines by farmers and ranchers, communities, and the rural workers who maintain wind turbines;

a plan to find the right approach to biofuels;

federal policies that work for family-size farms, including caps on payments;

better land and water stewardship using the Conservation Stewardship Program and other programs.

According to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Obama’s two finalists for Secretary of Transportation are former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Kirk was an early Obama supporter and the first African-American mayor of Dallas. Heminger has the strong backing of California’s large Democratic Congressional delegation. I don’t know enough about either man’s views on transportation to have an opinion about who would be better for this job.

New names continue to emerge in the speculation surrounding Obama’s Secretary of the Interior. Among the names previously floated, environmentalists have advocated for Raul Grijalva and against Mike Thompson. Now the Denver Post says Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado is a finalist for the job. Traditionally, someone from the west is named to head the Interior Department. Salazar is up for re-election in 2010, and Swing State Project already has a thread up to discuss possible Democratic candidates to replace him if he leaves the Senate for a cabinet position.

UPDATE: CBS news in Denver says Salazar has accepted Obama’s offer to become Secretary of the Interior. Not a great choice, and it leaves Democrats an open Senate seat to defend in Colorado in 2010.

Post any relevant thoughts or opinions in the comments.

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Organic Consumers Association against Vilsack for Ag Secretary

The Organic Consumers Association doesn’t hold back in this piece: Six Reasons Why Obama Appointing Monsanto’s Buddy, Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, for USDA Head is a Terrible Idea.

Click through to read the whole case against Vilsack. Among other things, they don’t like his advocacy of genetically-engineered crops for food or pharmaceuticals, his tendency to travel in Monsanto’s jet, and his support of biofuels.

I can’t recall anything Vilsack did as governor to address pollution from conventional farming or to promote sustainable agriculture. Then again, I was out of the state for most of his first term. If anyone wants to make the case for Vilsack as ag secretary in the comments, have at it.

I would much rather see Vilsack in a different post, such as secretary of education. He is very smart, understands policy and works hard, so he would be an asset to the cabinet–just not as agriculture secretary, in my opinion.

On a related note, if you care about food policy and sustainable agriculture, you should bookmark the community blog La Vida Locavore, featuring Jill Richardson (known to Daily Kos readers as OrangeClouds115) and Asinus Asinum Fricat, among others.

Jill’s recent posts indicate that Obama will likely improve food safety and may move us in the right direction in several other agricultural policy areas.

Read this before you accidentally eat melamine

Asinus Asinum Fricat is one of very few bloggers who teach you something in just about every piece they write. A trained chef, he writes lots of “food” diaries about various cuisines of the world and occasionally the food past generations ate.

Asinus Asinum Fricat also writes lots of pieces on environmental or health issues, such as this post on the massive “plastic soup” in the Pacific Ocean. Frankly, sometimes I dread clicking on his diaries, because I know he’s going to scare the hell out of me.

That said, I strongly recommend that everyone (especially parents) read a four-part series he recently completed about food products tainted with melamine. You may have heard of melamine last year in news reports about massive pet food recalls.

Unfortunately, melamine has shown up in the human food supply, and so far the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not been as aggressive in dealing with the danger as governmental agencies in some other countries.

Here are the four pieces by Asinus Asinum Fricat:

A Total Ban on Chinese Food Imports Should Be in Place. Now!

Must Read: Tainted Chinese Products Criminal Timeline

From China, with Love: Melamine (This one contains a long list of products that have been banned in other countries; many of them are brands you will recognize.)

Dem. Congresswoman Raps FDA On Melamine Risk Guidelines

The community blog on food issues, La Vida Locavore, is a good one to bookmark and check regularly for articles about food safety.

New community blog on food and farm policies

OrangeClouds115, a well-known blogger on food safety and sustainable agriculture issues, has started a community blog on these topics called La Vida Locavore (a “locavore” being a person who consumes local foods).

The blog is only a few days old, but there are already a lot of interesting posts up. I hadn’t heard that the American Nurses Association passed a resolution at their annual conference calling for “national and state laws, regulations and policies that specifically reduce the use of rBGH or rBST in milk and dairy production in the United States [….]”

Bookmark this blog and join the community if you are passionate about organic or chemical-free food, regulating corporate agriculture, food safety or related issues.

Speaking of food, Asinus Asinum Fricat wrote a good diary yesterday about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. I learned from him that there are apparently a lot of problems with the production and storage of extra virgin olive oil imported from Europe. This affects the nutritional quality of the oil as well as the environment where it’s produced.

Click the link for details, but here is a reassuring excerpt:

However there’s no need to panic as there are numerous olive oil companies in the USA who are family owned and operate their business the old-fashioned way, that is, by pressing the olives traditionally. I’m personally fond of the Bariani brand, made in Sacramento by the Bariani family.

Here is a handy guide of US olive oil companies here.

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Looking for a reason to boycott Burger King?

As far as I can remember, it’s been 10 to 15 years since I ate at a Burger King, so there’s little point to my declaring a boycott of the company’s restaurants.

But let’s say you want to eat less fast food and are looking for a little extra motivation not to stop at Burger King. I recommend this diary by orangeclouds115.

Apparently Burger King hired someone to infiltrate and spy on a student group that is trying to raise wages and improve working conditions for migrant workers who pick tomatoes in Florida. Click the link for details, and cross Burger King off your list.

In case you need motivation to avoid processed foods

Read this diary that Asinus Asinum Fricat posted at the EENRblog: The Obscene Scam that is Food Flavorings.

He talks about MSG in particular and its effects on human health and the obesity epidemic.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month I should add that many children with autism, ADD or ADHD find that their symptoms improve on a diet that is free of certain food additives (among other things).

For more information on the “Feingold diet,” click here.

New blog on food and farm policy

If you are interested in sustainable agriculture, check out the new Golden Apple Press blog. Front-pagers include Natasha Chart, who occasionally posts at MyDD, and Orangeclouds115, whose “Vegetables of Mass Destruction” diaries have gained quite a following at Daily Kos.

The latest post at Golden Apple Press is on farm-to-school programs. You may recall that the Iowa legislature approved and funded a farm-to-school program on the last day of this year's session.