May 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Booker blasts Vilsack’s food justice efforts

Sen. Cory Booker is seen in a close-up photo.
Sen. Cory Booker. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) had a tense back-and-forth with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a closed-door lunch last Thursday over the Biden administration’s efforts to address nutrition in minority communities, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: The heated exchange, which left some senators stunned, is an indication Booker — who, like Joe Biden, ran for president in 2020 — isn’t going to be shy about challenging Biden officials on issues about which he feels strongly.

  • The confrontation also reflects a level of frustration some Democrats have with the administration's efforts to address food deserts and the prevalence of junk food in inner cities, tribal lands and rural America.
  • "Sen. Booker appreciated the opportunity for a robust discussion with Secretary Vilsack and looks forward to continuing his work with the administration on these critical issues,” Maya Krishna-Rogers, Booker's press secretary, told Axios.
  • “Sen. Booker believes that access to affordable, nutritious food should not be dictated by your race, income or ZIP Code," she said. "He also knows that corporate agriculture consolidation is driving small farmers and ranchers out of business while pushing prices up for American families."
  • A Vilsack spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Driving the news: Vilsack, a close Biden confidant and former Iowa governor, was invited to the weekly Democratic Policy and Communications Committee lunch.

The discussion was largely focused on corporate consolidation in the agriculture industry and how Democrats can improve their appeal in rural communities.

  • Booker, a passionate vegan, appeared to catch Vilsack off-guard when he questioned what the department was doing to reform agribusiness and help provide healthier food to poorer Americans.
  • Vilsack responded, in part, that consumers sometimes prefer unhealthier foods — triggering an even stronger response from Booker.
  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the DPCC, tried to calm the tensions, but the meeting ended without Booker and Vilsack resolving their differences.

Go deeper: Booker, who chairs the Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics and Research, has made access to quality food a signature issue.

  • “Too many Americans are overfed but undernourished,” he said during a subcommittee hearing last November.
  • “Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, we have created a food system that relentlessly encourages the overeating of empty calories.”
  • “The risk of diabetes, for example, is 77% higher for Black people in America,” he said. “And, we are twice as likely to die from diabetes.”

Flashback: Booker is no stranger to public displays of passion.

  • The senator challenged Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018.
  • Booker drew a comparison between his efforts to defeat Kavanaugh and “Spartacus.”
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