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4 Food Politics The People's Department When Barack Obama strode to the podium to announce that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack was his choice for the thirtieth secretary of agriculture, the selection was greeted with unhappiness by several food justice and alternative food groups. Up until the December 17, 2008, announcement, many of those advocates had sought to weigh in on who would best represent a new type of approach to food and agriculture. Such a change seemed imperative, given the U.S. Department of Agricul- ture's history concerning such key issues as food export and global food policy, subsidies for commodity crops, and support for genetically modi- fied food technologies; its strong bias in favor of a chemically based agriculture; and its disregard of the conditions for farm labor. The Vilsack appointment was just the latest chapter in the USDA's long history as a government entity that dated back to 1862, when the Bureau of Agriculture (the forerunner of the USDA) was established by President Lincoln. Lincoln portrayed this new government bureau as a "People's Department" that was "meant to serve the interests of the people who worked the land," which is how the president-elect charac- terized the USDA's origins at his press conference announcing Vilsack's appointment. 1 With full-time farmers constituting in the 1860s as much as 48 percent of the population and 90 percent of those involved in farm-related activity, and with strong agrarian movements influencing its programs and direction, the People's Department was seen as repre- senting a crucial democratic strand in American politics. The bureau was turned into a cabinet-level department in 1889 and continued to expand its jurisdiction beyond its initial emphasis on services and the dispensing . I i I
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76 An Unjust Food System of free seeds and crops to become "the most dynamic portion of the national state," as one historian characterized it. By the turn of the twentieth century, it had become the third largest branch of government, after the Department of War and the Department of the Interior. 2 Through the Progressive Era, the USDA emerged as a complex bureau- cracy, ofte~ supportive of the shift toward a more industrialized agricul- tural production system while at the same time responsive to broad social movement pressures and grassroots participation in the design of some of its programs. By the 1930s and the New Deal, farmers and food producers, who had already gone through a major depression the previ- ous decade, with widespread foreclosures of small farms and a severe decline in the rural farm economy, looked to government intervention once again. The New Deal reignited interest in the USDA, led by its new secretary, Iowa agricultural newspaper editor Henry Wallace. Through the combination of price supports for farm crops, rural electrification, and a stimulus plan for reviving rural economies, the New Deal brought about a major overhaul of federal farm policy and a heightened role for the USDA in developing domestic economic policy.3
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This note was uploaded on 12/28/2011 for the course PLANNING & 10:832:101 taught by Professor Zitcher during the Fall '11 term at Rutgers.

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