President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as his choice to be secretary of Agriculture, a position that holds significant influence over child nutrition policy as the USDA administers federal school meal programs through its Food & Nutrition Services division.
The pick is among the last cabinet level positions to be filled, with the announcement coming only a day before Trump is to be inaugurated January 20. Like the other nominees, Perdue will have to be confirmed by the Senate.
The USDA pick was seen as a key decision for Trump given the strong support he received from rural voters in the 2017 presidential election, a factor that might have contributed to the delay in making the selection.
Perdue is generally seen as a supporter of agribusinesses and of international trade, the latter a potential area of disagreement with the new president, whose views on trade are seen as more restrictive. After leaving the Georgia statehouse in 2011, Perdue founded Perdue Partners, a global trade and export firm that almost certainly benefits from fewer international trade restrictions.
Perdue’s views on child nutrition and the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are unclear, but the issue will be prominent in the coming year as leading Congressional Republicans have announced their intentions to make changes to the bill in the reauthorization process left unresolved in the previous legislative session. HHFKA reauthorization was supposed to be completed in the last Congress, but legislators couldn’t come to a resolution on a final bill.
The new Congress, while slightly less Republican than the previous one, does have the advantage of having a Republican in the White House who is much less vested in maintaining the original HHFKA than President Barack Obama, for whom it is considered a key legislative achievement and one closely associated with first lady Michelle Obama’s influence.
The 70-year-old Perdue’s nomination is not a complete surprise as his name was among those generally considered the leading candidates for the position, in large part because he was a member of Trump’s agricultural advisory committee during the campaign.
Perdue, who grew up on a farm, served as a Democratic state senator in the Georgia legislature from 1990 to 2000 before switching parties to run for governor in 2002. When he won, he became Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He was re-elected in 2006.
Before entering politics, Perdue earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia and also owned a number of agriculture-related companies. His cousin David Perdue is a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia who sits on the Agriculture Committee, which will hold hearings on Sonny Perdue’s nomination.
The report of Perdue’s selection as USDA secretary drew fire from a number of sources for a variety of reasons ranging from his close ties to agri-businesses and his reported skepticism about man-made climate change to his ethnicity (the USDA was the last chance for Trump to add a Hispanic to his cabinet absent a Senate rejection of one of the choices).
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) issued the following statement regarding Perdue’s nomination from SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS:
“School Nutrition Association looks forward to working with Gov. Perdue to support school meal programs in their mission to expand access to healthy, appealing meals that support student success. School nutrition professionals are committed to continually improving the nutrition and quality of school meals and promoting healthier lifestyles for students. If confirmed, we are hopeful Gov. Perdue will work to strengthen school meal programs and help ease funding and regulatory challenges.”
"I, along with many other school nutrition professionals, have been anxiously awaiting the appointment of the new Ag Secretary,” commented Jeremy West, director of nutrition services for the Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6 in Colorado, which was named FM’s K-12 Innovator of the Year in 2016. “With child nutrition reauthorization at a standstill, this feels like the first small step forward. I am encouraged that Mr. Perdue has a background in agriculture and hope that he will have a heart for the compassionate work of nourishing our nation's greatest assets, our children, healthy meals.”