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USDA to focus on equity

By: Sydney Sheffield 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently established the Equity Commission and held its first meeting in late February 2022. The Commission is authorized and funded by the American Rescue Plan Act. The launch of the independent Commission delivers on President Biden’s commitment to create an independent Equity Commission and provide it with the necessary resources to support its mission to address historical discrimination at USDA.

In opening up the several-hour meeting, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he hopes to receive a set of recommendations for USDA from the commission to ensure farm programs address equity and inclusion concerns. He said it will be a “forward-looking process” to look at the history of what has taken place to provide an opportunity to examine and evaluate how to not repeat that past. Members of the public also had the opportunity to share commentary with the Commission. 

The 15-member commission and its Subcommittee on Agriculture will provide recommendations to the Secretary on policies, programs, and actions needed to address equity issues, including racial equity issues, within the Department and its programs, including strengthening accountability and providing recommendations to the Secretary on broader and more systemic equity issues at USDA. There are plans to launch an additional Subcommittee focused on rural community and economic development. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh and Arturo Rodriguez, president emeritus of the United Farm Workers, will serve as co-chairs of the commission.

“We are serious about our efforts to end discrimination across all areas of the Department,” said Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, Co-Chair of the Equity Commission. “Participation by a diverse group of representatives is key to the success of the Equity Commission and for USDA to build trust among those we serve.”

The USDA has a long history of discrimination. The department paid $2.2 billion to Black farmers and their descendants through the Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010. In 2018, it reached a $760 million settlement of the Keepseagle class action lawsuit on behalf of Native Americans, and in 2014, the Garcia lawsuit by Hispanic farmers was resolved through a dispute resolution program.

The work of the Equity Commission will empower USDA to objectively confront the hard reality of past discrimination and its lingering harm. Read the Commission’s charter here.