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Modesto, Calif., native Ann Veneman still promoting healthy food

San Joaquin Valley native Ann Veneman remains quite the globetrotting foodie.

On Tuesday, the woman who once headed the California and federal agriculture departments and then ran UNICEF returned to the nation’s capital. Formally, she was helping unveil a new report on fighting obesity. Informally, she was touching bases with another part of her far-flung world.

“I keep in touch through work like this,” Veneman said. “I try to keep up my connections.”

Veneman was one of four former cabinet secretaries -- two Democrats, two Republicans – to join in the preparation and release of the Bipartisan Policy Center report on obesity. The 105-page report, entitled “Lots to Lose,” identifies obesity as “the most urgent public health problem in America today,” and details recommendations that include promoting more fruit and vegetable consumption and extending federal dietary guidelines to cover children under the age 2.

“We currently have a system that focuses on trying to get people better once they’re sick,” Veneman said. “There must be a much greater shift toward prevention.”

The report’s unveiling to a set of cameras and a standing room-only crowd showcased the kind of long-standing relationships important in Washington. Former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, invited Veneman to participate in the study. They first got to know each other in the early 1990s, when he was in the House of Representatives and she was deputy secretary of agriculture.

In the audience was Kevin Herglotz, who worked for Veneman in Sacramento, Calif., during the mid-1990s and then joined her in 2001 during her stint as the first female secretary of agriculture in the George W. Bush administration. Now a San Francisco-based public affairs strategist who was in town for a U.S. Chamber of Commerce board meeting, Herglotz lent an informal helping hand Tuesday as his former boss navigated the scene.

“This is fun for her,” Herglotz said.

Born in Modesto, Calif., raised on both farming and politics as the daughter of a prominent state legislator, the 62-year-old Veneman has been back in private life since her five-year UNICEF stint ended in 2010. Make that: quasi-private. While she resides in New York City, she’s a global player as a member of several corporate and non-profit boards and as a participant in various studies and policy discussions.

The corporate work pays her way. She is one of 14 Nestle board members; the Swiss company reports paying directors a base rate of 280,000 Swiss francs, which is equivalent to about $290,000. Veneman also is a director of Alexion Pharmaceuticals, which reports paying board members $60,000 in addition to various stock benefits.

On the side, Veneman pitches in as a board member or trustee of non-profits such as the educational Close Up Foundation as well as 4-H, the youth farming organization in which she got her own start some time ago with her membership in the Empire, Calif., outfit.

“I did horses and cooking,” Veneman said, laughing. “Of course, that was way back then.”

The advisory work keeps her on the road, a place she has gotten used to. During her time at UNICEF, Veneman traveled to some 72 countries. Soon enough, for a group called Vital Voices, she will be traveling to South Africa for a conference; and then, for a development organization called BRAC, she will be in Uganda.

For the anti-obesity report issued Tuesday, Veneman and her fellow former cabinet secretaries traveled a little less dramatically, to Florida and Utah, and also participated in what she called “many roundtables” and draft discussions. Their resulting recommendations -- more breastfeeding, more exercise, more fruits and vegetables – are built upon a lot of data; they do not reflect any obvious partisan ideology.

“The four of us,” Glickman said, “are pretty practical folks.”

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