From its top officers down to its local offices, the Agriculture Department needs to institutionalize equity in its programs and its operations, said an administration-appointed commission on Tuesday after a year-long study of the USDA. Sometimes called “the last plantation” because of racial bias in its operations, the USDA has paid $3 billion since 1999 to resolve lawsuits by Black, Native American and Hispanic farmers.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, co-chair of the commission, said the interim report with 32 recommendations for action would be a starting point for reform. A final report was expected by the end of the year.
“There are some things we need to get across the finish line quickly,” said Bronaugh, referring to drafting the new farm bill this year and the 2024 elections.
The commission said the deputy secretary, who oversees the department’s day-to-day activities, should take the lead in institutionalizing equity at the USDA and be empowered by regulation to review equity plans among the USDA’s 29 agencies. It should also ensure through the budget process “that those plans are faithfully carried out and senior executives are accountable for making measurable improvements in equity in programs and services.”
“For all equity efforts outlined in this report and those currently taking place across USDA to be successful, there is a need to enact legislation and policy to ensure that continued work towards equity in programs and services is a priority of USDA leadership over time,” said the report.
Commission members said the USDA’s producer-elected county committees, which advise local USDA employees on how to administer loan, conservation and safety-net programs, should be reformed to become more equitable. It said committee members should go through diversity training and the USDA should consider “a minimum percentage of representation” on the committees to reflect the local population.
“County committees in many states have not represented minority farmers and ranchers and the powers afforded to county committees have continued to result in decisions that often cripple the economic livelihood of minority farmers and ranchers,” said the report.
The commission also recommended continued funding for programs to resolve the heirs’ property issue; revision of the USDA definition of farms to account for subsistence farmers “who rely on trading and/or sharing resources”; and removal of barriers to food stamps “that have a disparate effect” on racial minorities (many SNAP restrictions were created as part of the 1996 welfare reform law).
“This important and insightful report from the Equity Commission will be invaluable to me and USDA staff as we continue to make the People’s Department one that lifts up everyone we serve, not just a few,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “USDA is committed to turning the tide and ensuring those who seek access to land, capital, markets, nutrition assistance and agriculture education and experience can do so, regardless of their background.”
Commission co-chair Arturo Rodriguez, former president of the United Farm Workers union, said the recommendations “address issues that are not new to USDA but they do require a renewed commitment to improve access to programs and services for all stakeholders, inclusive of people of color, farmworkers, women, Tribal and Indigenous communities, individuals with disabilities, individuals with limited English proficiency, rural communities, and LGBTQI+ communities.”
To read the commission report, click here.