Shortly after Tom Vilsack became President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, he told a small group of us about his job interview with the then President Elect. “He said to me ‘at the USDA you are going to be responsible for farmers and commodities and forests, and many other pressing matters but the first and most important thing I want you to do is to make sure that all of our children are fed.’”
With the Secretary of Agriculture being one of the last remaining cabinet positions for President-Elect Trump to fill, one can only hope that a similar conversation is taking place. But amid all of the talk about dealmakers, and conflicts of interest, and the importance of who “looks the part”, it’s a bit hard to imagine.
Not much has been heard about vulnerable children from the parade of office seekers coming and going from Trump Tower and Mar-A-Lago. That’s a shame because America’s children are hurting with nearly 20% of them living below the poverty line. When our kids are compromised in terms of their nutrition, health and educational achievement, our economic competitiveness and national security are compromised as well.
President Obama set the bar high with his appointments. Secretary Vilsack and the team he assembled remained faithful to the charge of protecting the most vulnerable. In my 30 years in Washington, Tom Vilsack strikes me as a rare public servant who combines compassion with competence, and empathy with effective executive leadership. Child poverty rates improved during his tenure and the percentage of children living in households with the kinds of very low food security that means missed meals, fell to one of the lowest levels recorded.
But there is still a long way to go. We can only hope that someone senior in the new Administration will have a story similar to Secretary Vilsack’s about a new president urging him to put children’s interests ahead of the special interests. If not, the rest of us must.