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Ag groups call for quick confirmation of Vilsack

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USDA CHANGES: Farm groups push to have Vilsack appointment approved while Biden Administration fills key staff positions for the ag agency.
USDA begins to fill positions as the new Biden administration looks to make its mark on ag policy.

A coalition of nearly 130 leading U.S. food and agriculture associations called for the swift confirmation of Thomas Vilsack to serve as secretary of agriculture. In a letter sent to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, the groups cite Secretary Vilsack’s vision for meeting the substantial current challenges of food and agriculture and submit that his previous outstanding eight-year service in the post during the Obama administration will benefit consumers both in the U.S. and abroad.

“Secretary Vilsack understands and embraces as USDA’s mission the advancement of U.S. food and agriculture for the benefit of all in the U.S. and countless consumers beyond our shores. We endorse the nomination of Secretary Vilsack not just because of his previous outstanding eight-year tenure in the post during the Obama Administration, but more importantly because of his vision for meeting the substantial current challenges of food and agriculture,” the letter notes.

The groups go on to say, “Secretary Vilsack is ready to lead the peoples’ department and American food and agriculture broadly to meet environmental challenges, enhance diversity and inclusion, strengthen food security, and build rural prosperity through expanded trade and development of the bioeconomy, all with broad consumer benefits.”

Related: An early look at Vilsack's likely USDA priorities

Together, the group of associations represent the vast majority of the food and agriculture sector responsible for roughly one-fifth of the country’s economic activity, directly supporting more than 23 million jobs – constituting nearly 15% of total U.S. employment.

Key appointments announced

As the Biden administration was officially sworn in, the USDA also officially announced senior staff positions that don’t require confirmation.   

Gregory Parham, D.V.M., was named interim deputy assistant secretary for administration. Parham served as assistant secretary for administration from 2013-2016. Previously, he served as administrator of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Prior to that, Parham served as APHIS' associate administrator and as the deputy administrator for marketing and regulatory programs, business services. He joined USDA in 1982 and has worked for several agencies. Parham holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University and doctorate and bachelor’s degrees from Ohio State University.

Katharine Ferguson was named chief of staff in the Office of the Secretary. Most recently, Ferguson served as associate director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group. Before joining the Aspen Institute, Ferguson served in the Obama Administration as chief of staff for the White House Domestic Policy Council and as chief of staff for rural development at USDA. Ferguson also worked on the Senate Agriculture Committee and as staff to several U.S. senators. Other work experience has focused on topics ranging from racial equity, community economic development, conservation, food and agriculture, public health and nutrition. Originally from Colorado, she is a graduate of Tufts University and holds an MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Robert Bonnie was named deputy chief of staff for policy and senior advisor, climate, in the Office of the Secretary. Most recently Bonnie served as an executive in residence at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Previously, he served as director of the Farm and Forests Carbon Solutions Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where he worked to develop new initiatives to combat the climate crisis through agricultural innovation. During the Obama Administration, he served as undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment and as a senior adviser to Vilsack for climate and the environment. He worked at the Environmental Defense Fund for 14 years. Bonnie holds a master’s degree in forestry and environmental management from Duke University, and a bachelor’s from Harvard College.

Sara Bleich was named senior adviser, COVID-19, in the Office of the Secretary. Previously, Bleich served as a professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research centers on food insecurity, as well as racial injustice within the social safety net. She is the author of more than 150 peer-reviewed publications. From 2015-2016, she served as a White House fellow in the Obama Administration, where she worked in USDA as a senior policy adviser for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. Bleich holds a PhD in Health Policy from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University.

Kumar Chandran was named senior adviser, nutrition, in the Office of the Secretary. Most recently, Chandran was Policy Director for FoodCorps and led the Washington, D.C. office. Prior to that, he served as chief of staff to the undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services in the Obama Administration. Prior to his tenure at USDA, Chandran served at the national nonprofit Share Our Strength.

Justo Robles was named White House liaison in the Office of the Secretary. Prior to joining USDA, Robles served as Georgia Deputy Coalitions Director for Biden for President. Previously, he was deputy director and chief of staff for Energy Independence Now, a national nonprofit advocating for clean energy. In the Obama Administration, Robles served as advance lead in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, among other positions in the Department of Defense.

Deputy secretaries named

USDA announced that nutrition policy expert Stacy Dean has been named deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS). Prior to joining USDA, Dean served as vice president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. She directed the Center’s food assistance team, which publishes frequent reports on how federal nutrition programs affect families and communities and develops policies to improve them. She joined the Center in 1997 and has deep experience understanding the delivery of health and human services programs at the state and local levels.

Previously, as a budget analyst at the Office of Management and Budget, she worked on policy development, regulatory and legislative review, and budgetary process and execution for a variety of income support programs. Dean earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public policy from the University of Michigan.

Related: Biden diversifies USDA with deputy secretary nominee Bronaugh

USDA also announced Justin Maxson, CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, has been named deputy undersecretary for rural development. Maxson served as the CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, an organization that works toward poverty alleviation and economic justice in southern states. Before that, he spent 13 years as the president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. Maxson holds a master’s degree in anthropology and development from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Kentucky.

USDA also announced that Mae Wu has been named deputy undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs. Prior to joining USDA, Wu served as a senior director at the Natural Resource Defense Council, helping to lead the organization’s health and food work. She has also worked with the federal government to revise the Total Coliform Rule, as well as served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee and its National Drinking Water Advisory Council. Wu holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Rice University, a master’s degree in environmental policy from the University of Cambridge, and a Juris Doctor from Duke University.

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