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Table Talk : Policy Maker : Ellen Haas: A Beltway Outsider Moves Inside

August 11, 1994|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOPLAND, Calif. — Summer is the most peaceful season here in the midst of Mendocino County's vineyards and orchards, as fruit matures to the verge of ripeness and little work needs to be done until harvest. The July heat slows life down as well, adding to the stillness.

Ellen Haas, however, doesn't have time for reveries or solitude. At the moment she is involved in debating the weighty issues of the food world: nutrition, affordability, sustainable agriculture.

The occasion: a gathering of top chefs, environmentalists and consumer activists. The place: Fetzer Vineyards' state-of-the-art organic garden and culinary center known as Valley Oaks.

But midway through a session on improving children's diets, Haas reluctantly bolts out of the meeting room. An assistant has just reminded her that it is time for yet another appointment on this one-week visit to California.

Ranking U.S. Department of Agriculture officials do not normally mix with chefs, organic farmers and winemakers on the latter's home territory. Traditionally, these interests are in conflict as the USDA routinely promotes--and favors--conventional farming represented by the nation's massive grain interests and meat industries.

But Haas, the USDA's Assistant Secretary for Food and Consumer Services, is the kind of government official who has been willing to defy bureaucratic convention. (Americans may remember the USDA's Food and Consumer Services as the agency that attempted to classify ketchup as a vegetable during the Reagan Administration.)

"Why am I here?" She answers her own question. "Well, we have a magnificent opportunity to dramatically change the health of children through our school lunch initiative. And central to the proposal is to improve the taste of food served to kids. Chefs can be partners with USDA in helping us make the change . . . because if cafeteria food doesn't look good, children won't eat it."

Haas takes exception to any suggestion that attending an organic farming conference complete with gourmet meals and vintage wines is elitist or inappropriate.

"These people are far from being fancy. They roll up their sleeves. They get their hands dirty. And vineyards are a part of American agriculture," she says. "We can't make the changes we have proposed with just the traditional interests who have dominated the policy arena in the past. We will meet with all interests. . . . And being here also helps to get out of the bureaucratic vacuum (in Washington)."

*

Haas is one of the most powerful women executives in the Clinton Administration, overseeing programs with an annual budget of $39 billion covering food stamps, the National School Lunch Program and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC).

Haas, in fact, is fond of saying that one in six Americans is touched by the USDA feeding programs under her control: 27 million Americans receive food stamps, another 25 million children receive federally subsidized school lunches or breakfasts, and seven million women are enrolled in WIC.

Only Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala's $286 billion budget eclipses Haas' total among major federal agencies or departments currently run by women.

In the early stages of the Clinton Administration, Shalala, Attorney General Janet Reno, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner were among the women who became recognizable Washington personalities. Not Haas--agriculture and food issues normally take a back seat in the national news cycle. But she is raising her profile dramatically by changing the philosophy behind the cornerstones of America's anti-hunger programs with an emphasis on healthy eating rather than just feeding.

And Haas' path to the USDA is different from that traveled by virtually all her colleagues in the executive branch--women or men.

Sixteen months ago, Haas made the unlikely jump from shoestring consumer gadfly to top federal official. At the time, she traded in her dingy office at Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group, for a palatial corner suite at the USDA headquarters.

The move from firebrand to administrator overseeing a multibillion-dollar budget is unusual even for the federal government's revolving doors. Consumer groups are rarely, if ever, the proving ground for big-time Republican--or Democratic--appointees. More likely, the pinnacle for consumer advocates is a few minutes on network television attacking the vested interests.

Even so, Haas seems perfectly suited to her post. She has worked in and around Washington her entire career. In a sense, she is a Beltway insider who has made a living as an outsider, a self-appointed advocate for a long list of consumer issues.

And she has a ready explanation for those who say she was not qualified to jump from a $1-million-a-year consumer-advocacy operation to her current responsibilities and huge budget.

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