Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended President Joe Biden’s ability to lead the country Wednesday, citing his record on job creation and stance on Russian aggression.

“You're damn right he’s capable of doing the job, because he's doing the job. And he's been doing it for three and a half years,” Vilsack told Agri-Pulse after addressing the School Superintendents Association and Association of School Business Officials International in Washington, where he announced $10 million in grants for school food innovation.

As an example, Vilsack said he had gotten a call “the other day” from Biden. “Now, the president of the United States has a lot on his plate,” he said. “So what was he calling me about? He was calling me about beef prices for the American family. He wanted to understand and know why steaks cost more.”

The secretary said he explained some of the reasons behind the prices — “supply constrained, supply chains choked because of the early days of the pandemic not being handled properly” — and told Biden that consumers have alternatives such as pork or chicken available.

“I explained the steps that we were taking in terms of helping families deal with the issue, and I explained to him that we were seeing food inflation generally at the grocery store coming down below the 20-year average,” he said. “That was the president of the United States asking about something in the scheme of things,” compared to Biden’s schedule today, where he addressed the leaders of NATO  at a summit in the capital.

Vilsack credited Biden’s leadership for “record” job growth and startups of small businesses, a booming stock market, and “the lowest gas prices in three years,” as well as making NATO “a force again, pushing back on Russian aggression.”

“I've known the guy for 30 years,” Vilsack said. “So, is he capable? Yes. And as importantly, his team is capable.”

He also pushed back against the notion that a debate has anything to do with being president. Biden's performance at his debate with former president and current GOP candidate Donald Trump has been widely panned and has prompted a debate among Democrats about whether Biden should step aside for another candidate, even as the president himself has maintained he has the best chance to beat Trump.  

“There's nothing about being president that connects to a debate,” Vilsack said. When Biden has a difficult decision to make, he does not make it “in 30 seconds and … explain it in a soundbite.”

“He assembles people. … He gets all the opinions. Sometimes he gets some in writing, sometimes they're verbal, sometimes they're in the Situation Room, sometimes they're in the Oval Office. He evaluates, and he decides, and he gives clear direction.”

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Addressing the school superintendents and administrators who had assembled for their annual legislative conference, Vilsack got applause when he said there should be “universal free meals for kids across the board” and touted the department’s Summer EBT program, known as Sun Bucks, which provides children $120 for three months.

“We’re excited about the fact that we have 35 states that are … operating it this year,” Vilsack said. “We’re going to learn from this first year.”

One of the states that’s not taking part in the program, which provides money for the food while requiring that states pick up half the administrative costs, is Iowa, where Vilsack lives and was governor.

”What are we doing here?” he asked a school official from Iowa in the audience. “With all due respect to my governor, she says this is a pandemic program. No, it's not a pandemic program. It's a program we've been researching for 10 years. It's a program that we know works. It's a program that will provide hundreds of thousands of youngsters in states across this country with the opportunity to have decent meals during the summer. This is a no-brainer.”

Vilsack also announced awards of School Food System Innovation grants — $7.4 million to Maine’s “Full Potential” program and $2.7 million to the Illinois Health Institute. Those organizations have in turn awarded grants to different groups in their states.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds cited concerns about obesity when declining last year to accept $29 million in federal money for Sun Bucks. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” she said in a statement. Instead, in April she announced a $900,000 competitive grant program to expand summer meal sites.

“This isn't a competition,” Vilsack said after his speech. “We have a program [that] doesn't force your kid to compete against my kid.”

“You’ve got several hundred thousand kids in Iowa that [receive] free and reduced lunch help” who would receive $40 per month for three months under the Sun Bucks program. “It's beyond me why she doesn't see the wisdom of this.”

The Iowa Hunger Coalition is petitioning Reynolds to take part in the federal program.

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