Obama's USDA picks might signal revamped priorities

Nominations indicate that nutrition and agricultural research will become more of a focus.

With his two latest picks for key Agriculture Department posts, President Obama is signaling a possible shake-up in several programs that have historically gotten little attention, including nutrition and agricultural research.

Kevin Concannon, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, has been tapped to be USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services -- a post that oversees, among other things, the food stamp program -- while Rajiv Shah of the Gates Foundation has been nominated for USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics. Both appointments, announced Friday, require Senate confirmation.

The undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services has traditionally not been a high-profile position. But with food stamps and school meals programs, known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, now totaling about 68 percent of the department's budget, or $80 billion, that is set to change. The child nutrition programs are scheduled for reauthorization this year, and Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack want to make the fight against child obesity a priority.

The position will be critical as the debate over child nutrition and obesity policy are likely to lead to conflicts among agricultural sectors over what foods the government buys and what messages it sends the public. As Iowa governor, Vilsack appointed Concannon as director of the department in 2003, and Vilsack's successor, Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, reappointed him in 2007. Iowa DHS is in charge of food assistance as well as cash welfare and medical aid programs.

Meanwhile, Shah's appointment could be controversial, as a physician whose work in agriculture has focused on developing countries, not the land grant college system. After working on former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential run, Shah joined the Gates Foundation in 2001 and supervised its health program before becoming director of agricultural development.

In that job, he has managed the foundation's grant-making portfolios in science and technology, farmer productivity, market access, and policy and statistics. The Gates Foundation recently funded a Chicago Council on Global Affairs report that concluded the U.S. Agency for International Development should take a bigger role in agricultural research. It also called on Congress to repeal a U.S. law forbidding government funding on product research that foreigners could use to compete with U.S. agriculture.

If approved, Shah would oversee the research activities at USDA laboratories and the land grant colleges while setting more broadly the tone for USDA research. There have been continual battles between the smaller land grant colleges, which prefer formula grants that go to each school based on the size of its enrollment, and the bigger land grant colleges and other universities, which prefer competitive grants. Some policymakers argue USDA research money is wasted because it is doled out to too many schools through formula funds, while others claim that the bigger, more prestigious schools win competitive grants because their grant-writing departments are superior. Lawmakers often use earmarks to get USDA money to land grant institutions in their states.