Advancing Racial Justice and Equity Through the USDA
September 1, 2021
NSAC recently submitted a response to USDA’s request for comment on how the department can advance racial justice and equity for underserved communities. USDA is hoping to identify barriers that Black, Indigenous, and other BIPOC communities and individuals may face in accessing, enrolling, and participating in USDA programs and services, and engaging with USDA staff. It was the first public opportunity in this new Administration to provide feedback on USDA shortfalls when it comes to serving BIPOC farmers.
NSAC firmly believes that there cannot be a just, resilient, and sustainable food system without meaningful action by the Biden Administration to meet its commitment to racial equity at USDA, in every Agency, and across every program and administrative action.
Executive Order 13985
USDA’s request for input from the public is part of its implementation of Executive Order 13985, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” The Biden Administration is pursuing a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. Advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes. Government agencies must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity. In the coming months, USDA plans on establishing a Racial Equity Commission that will focus specifically on addressing systemic barriers to equity in USDA programs.
Institute an annual, systematic review of FSA officers’ active loan portfolios for discriminatory action, with appropriate actions taken in cases where discrimination or other forms of abuse are indicated, including but not limited to, direct supervision, more in-depth investigation, probation, and dismissal.
To increase transparency in program delivery:
Create an independent Civil Rights Oversight Board to oversee civil rights within USDA and to protect the rights of farmers and ranchers. The Board should review civil rights appeals, conduct regular reviews to assess USDA compliance with applicable civil rights laws, investigate reports of discrimination within USDA, and recommend improvements to USDA policies and procedures to prevent future discrimination. The Board should also provide oversight over FSA county committees and report publicly on the treatment of socially disadvantaged farmers.
To ensure redress for farmers who have been subjected to discrimination or abuse:
Establish an Equity Commission to study the legacy of discrimination against Black agricultural producers, including investigating discrimination in Farm Service Agency county committees, and recommending solutions to improve the status of socially-disadvantaged producers. In addition, issue guidance on equitable relief provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill to ensure that farmers who incurred an economic loss or were denied credit because of the actions of, or information provided by, a USDA employee can be compensated and otherwise made whole for lost farming revenue and any consequential losses.
To ensure the needs of BIPOC producers are fully considered in program design:
Institute new protocols and provide resources to ensure that the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE) meets its statutory mission to both advocate for small, minority, and beginning farmers within USDA, as well as coordinate outreach activities.
To ensure that BIPOC producers have equitable access to land to begin and expand their farms:
Launch a USDA wide initiative to expand opportunities for new farmers, particularly new farmers of color, with a focus on farm transfer and farmland transition, farmland access, and tenure. A particular focus should be given to resolving heirs property issues and outreach to non-operating landowners.
To deliver targeted program benefits more equitably and effectively:
Reform the administration and peer review of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (i.e. 2501) competitive grant program. This would ensure a more transparent, timely, and responsive process by establishing a consistent Fall/Winter application period, with a minimum 90-day application window, to allow ample time for individuals to prepare and submit applications. USDA should seek external expertise to manage and improve the 2501 peer review process, in a similar manner to grant programs administered by the Agricultural Marketing Service.
To promote BIPOC producer access to existing conservation programs:
Revise the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) Final Rule so it equitably serves historically underserved producers by ensuring that separate ranking pools for beginning farmers and ranchers, socially disadvantaged producers, military veteran farmers and ranchers, and organic and transitioning to organic producers, are included in the revised Interim Final Rule. This is a key equity consideration in the program, and it is very concerning that the Final Rule hinted that this practice may change in the future.
To promote BIPOC producer access to new markets:
Use the authority granted by the 2018 farm bill to establish a simplified application for Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) subprogram of the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) grants under $50,000 and prioritize applications serving socially disadvantaged producers and underserved communities.
To ensure research supports and includes BIPOC communities:
Expand National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) capacity-building grants for BIPOC farmers within key NIFA programs that offer grants for capacity building such as: Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach program, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP).
To support our BIPOC farmworkers and their communities:
USDA’s mandate to provide opportunities, benefits, and programming for people of color or other underserved groups must extend to include farmworkers. Farmworkers deserve the same rights and protections as the farmers they work beside and as all other laborers. USDA should take steps to ensure people working on farms, often with decades of farming experience, are included in their outreach and programs.
Looking to the Future:
NSAC’s public comment will deeply inform our work as we begin planning for the 2023 Farm Bill. Although it may feel early to some, the NSAC team and many other organizations across the country have begun setting priorities and forming their platforms for the 2023 cycle. The Farm Bill is an immensely powerful package of laws that sets the course of our country’s food and farm systems and with only two years until the next cycle, now is a pivotal time for organizations to ensure their platforms are based around promoting racial equity and justice in our food and farming systems.