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Highlights of USDA 150th anniversary celebration

The Agriculture Department celebrated its 150th birthday today with a program that emphasized how the agency’s mission has broadened from its role when President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill creating it on May 15, 1862 and the event even included audience exercise to work off some of the weight that comes from eating the country’s agricultural bounty.

“This is a terrific opportunity to reflect on the history of the agency, how it’s expanded its role, to focus on the country and to challenge those at USDA,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview on Monday. “It’s an amazing department and I think if Lincoln were alive he’d be so proud of the department.”

Vilsack made every attempt to interest the national media in USDA’s story. He convinced Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the hosts of Morning Joe, to emcee the program without charging personal appearance fees. He rounded up Chuck Leavell, longtime keyboardist of the Rolling Stones and founder of Mother Nature Network; Art Monk, NFL Hall of Fame Wide Receiver, and LaVar Arrington, three-time NFL Pro Bowl Linebacker to appear without charge to USDA.

Vilsack, who was a guest on Morning Joe today, noted in the interview that Scarborough’s first television show was “Scarborough Country.” He said that even though Scarborough is more conservative than the Obama administration, “he is a good guy, his heart is in the right place.”

Brzezinski, who said she runs five miles a day, wanted to appear at USDA because she is committed to good nutrition, Vilsack added.

Scarborough noted that there are many criticisms of the United States, but he said the country “has freed more people and fed more people than any other country in the world.”

Much of the banter between the hosts was about Brzezinski’s attempts to get Scarborough to eat healthy food and exercise--and his resistance to both.

“The foundation of my food groups is oils and fats,” Scarborough said. But both television hosts said it is important that children eat healthy food.

“How do we make sure school districts are not feeding them garbage?” Scarborough asked Audrey Rowe, the administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

Rowe replied that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will put in place new meal patterns and also make sure that foods available in school vending machines and other food lines meet those standards.

Also appearing was Arrington, who is involved in Fuel Up for 60, an in-school nutrition and physical activity program launched by the National Football League and the National Dairy Council in collaboration with USDA. The program, he said, encourages children to eat healthy and to get 60 minutes of exercise per day. He led the audience in exercises that ended with in-place jumping jacks.

Arrington also put in a pitch for the dairy industry, noting that he loves cheese and that dairy products build strong bones. “I played a full contact sport and I never endured a broken bone,” Arrington said.

“Young people—be aware of what you are putting in your mouth,” he said, adding that unhealthy foods are easily available but that it is better to take extra time to get healthy food.

Several USDA employees talked about their responses to emergencies during 9/11, in Afghanistan and during Hurricane Katrina.

Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White noted that during two catastrophes, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a drought in the Southeast, the USDA helped create 500,000 acres of “instant wetlands” that became a much needed shelter for millions of migratory birds. He showed a video of an enormous flock of birds taking off from a marsh.

Vilsack talked about the importance of agriculture to the nation’s economy and also brought out a key theme of his talks these days—that the then-Congress joined with President Lincoln in the midst of the brutal Civil War to create the Agriculture Department and pass the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act that created the land grant colleges, and the bill that created the transcontinental railroad. “People say you can’t do great things anymore,” Vilsack said. The audience laughed, knowing that Vilsack was questioning the record of the current Congress.

Cecilia Munoz of the White House Domestic Policy Council introduced a video of President Obama complimenting the USDA on its anniversary. Obama noted that Lincoln had created USDA as “the people’s department.”

“Thank you and congratulations,” Obama said to the USDA employees.

At the close of the program, Vilsack joked that he could give another speech but that it would be better for Leavell, who had already performed George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” to play another piece.

Leavell, who had told the audience earlier that he grows trees on his land in Georgia, said that he loves trees partly because pianos are made from them. Closing, by saying it was time for rock and roll, he ended the anniversary program with Blind Willie McTell’s “Wake up Mama.”