Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Broke with Democrats to vote against his nomination.
Vilsack had been subjected to intense criticism from civil rights activists who said he did not go far enough to eradicate racial discrimination at the agency or support farmers with color during his first term in the role.
He will head the agency at a time of growing food insecurity due to the pandemic. It is estimated that 50 million Americans are food insecure, and food banks and pantries around the country have low food.
Vilsack will also face demands to provide assistance to farmers after the Biden administration had up to $ 2.3 billion in support for farmers approved by the Trump administration.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to curb the pandemic, transform America̵
Vilsack said during his confirmation hearing that he would prioritize food assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and WIC.
“The USDA needs to do a better job of educating people about the existence of these programs,” he said at the time. “It is also important to get state and local leaders involved in this and that we make access to these programs more convenient.”
At the confirmation hearing, Vilsack spoke about expanding the programs from farm to school or prison, financing food hubs, expanding obligations to farmers’ markets and ensuring that food banks have the infrastructure to collect and store perishable food.
He also promised to prioritize racial justice as well as support and encourage farmers, ranchers and foresters to adopt climate-friendly practices.
Vilsack has said he shares President Biden’s vision of net-zero agriculture, achieved in part by building markets that pay farmers to sequester carbon and capture and recycle methane.
Asked about his No vote on the Vilsack confirmation, Sanders told The Washington Post: “Well, I like Tom, and I’ve known him for years. But I think we need someone a little more energetic in terms of protecting family farms and taking on agriculture. “
A statement from Sanders said “at a time when business consolidation of agriculture is unbroken and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is ready to take over the power of business in the industry. I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that was not what Tom did when he last served in this job. “
Major agricultural organizations such as the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union have expressed consistent support for Vilsack. After his confirmation, the American Soybean Association, the North American Meat Institute, the National Milk Producers Federation, and other industry groups praised his many years of experience.
Colleague Iowan Republican Senator Chuck Grassley tried to “set the record straight” on Vilsack’s record in pursuit of racial justice.
“He made it clear to all employees that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated in the USDA,” Grassley said in a statement. “I know Secretary Vilsack will continue to work for the family farmers and highlight their contribution to agriculture and society.”
Vilsack, 70, served from 2009 to 2017 in the Obama administration and will take over as the second-longest-serving Secretary of Agriculture. He assumes the role two months earlier than his predecessor Sonny Perdue, who first stepped into the Trump administration position until April 2017.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.