KANSAS CITY — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has nominated Tom Vilsack to reprise his role as Secretary of Agriculture. While it is rare but not unheard of for former cabinet officials from previous administrations to return to the same role, in this instance it is a welcome development. America is in crisis, and Mr. Biden needs leaders who can be effective on day one.
The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on the US population has been dramatic. Passage of the CARES Act earlier this year alleviated some of the impact, but the US Department of Health and Human Services forecasts the annual poverty rate in the United States will rise to 10.9% in 2020 from 10.5% in 2019. Following the expiration of the CARES Act benefits and using an unemployment baseline of 8.2%, the HHS estimates the poverty rate will be 13.6% for the five-month period from August to December. This translates to 43.8 million Americans in poverty in a country with a total population of approximately 331 million.
The spike in the poverty rate is translating into an increasing prevalence of food insecurity. More than 35 million people in the United States struggled with hunger in 2019, according to the USDA. Feeding America, a leading advocate for addressing food insecurity, predicts more than 50 million people may experience food insecurity this year, including 17 million children.
Adding to the intense pressure, traditional distribution channels and newly developed programs to address food insecurity are faltering. With in-person schooling halted or occurring only a few days per week, many children do not have consistent access to school meal programs. An analysis by the Brookings Institution indicates only 15% of children who qualify to receive free- or reduced-priced school meals may be receiving them.
The USDA launched its Farmers to Families Food Box program earlier this year to aid in providing food to families in need. The program may be considered a success, but demand has outstripped federal funding. Between mid-May and August, the program provided more than 86 million food boxes to those in need, according to the USDA. From September through the end of the year, the number of boxes provided will fall to close to 41 million. Those on the front lines of providing food to those in need say demand has not waned during the latter portion of the year.
It is against this backdrop that Mr. Vilsack has been asked to serve again as Secretary of Agriculture. In accepting the nomination, he rightly identified his top priorities as providing pandemic relief for hungry families, rural communities, food workers and agricultural producers. Secondary priorities include addressing climate change and eliminating inequality from the programs the USDA leads.
Mr. Vilsack’s nomination has received broad support from traditional agriculture trade associations and commodities groups. More progressive agriculture and food groups have expressed their disappointment.
Mr. Biden is right to prioritize experience and effectiveness over aspiration. America is in crisis, and the Secretary of Agriculture’s No. 1 priority must be directing the full might of the USDA to alleviating that crisis. The president-elect said Mr. Vilsack will be ready to hit the ground running. He will have his work cut out for him.