Equity commission will root out systemic racism in USDA programs, says Vilsack

At the same time USDA announced its first-ever senior adviser for racial equity, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday that an equity commission would “identify and root out any systemic racism that may exist” in USDA programs. Vilsack also said he wanted to use $13 billion in pandemic relief funds, approved at the end of 2020, to reach producers left out of earlier coronavirus programs.

“The goal is to try to make sure that when all is said and done, (with) all the resources provided, that everyone in the supply chain gets a fair shot at the resources,” said Vilsack, speaking to the online National Farmers Union annual convention.

Federal funding, “and a very significant amount of it,” will be needed to bring broadband access to all of rural America, he said. “I’m skeptical the private sector by itself is ever going to do what it needs to make sure that every remote area of this country has access to high-speed internet” because of the cost of providing service. The government took a prominent role during the New Deal in electrifying rural America.

Dewayne Goldmon, executive director of the National Black Growers Council, was named USDA senior adviser on racial equity, reporting to Vilsack. He is the first high-level official in the agriculture secretary’s office whose primary focus is racial justice, said a USDA spokesman. Among his duties will be “standing up” an equity commission at USDA. President Biden has ordered federal officials to review whether under-served communities face systemic barriers in federal programs and to decide if new policies are needed to advance equity in their programs.

“We’ll have an equity commission, which will begin the process of investigating all of the programs at USDA to make sure that we identify and root out any systemic racism that may exist in those programs,” said Vilsack. “Now, the reality is that we’ve not only had discrimination in the past but we’ve had the cumulative effect of that discrimination, which needs to be addressed.”

He urged the Senate to pass the administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which includes $4 billion for debt relief for minority farmers and $1 billion to improve land access, resolve heirs’ property issues and provide legal aid to socially disadvantaged farmers.

The USDA acknowledged decades of racial discrimination in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010 and paid $2.2 billion to Black farmers and their descendants. Complaints continue of persistent discrimination by USDA.

As part of a regulatory review, the USDA has frozen payments through its stopgap coronavirus programs. “Before we can distribute these resources, we need to do an evaluation of exactly how the previous resources have been appropriated and divided and paid out,” said Vilsack.

The Trump administration sent $23 billion in pandemic aid to farmers from May through December 2020. On Jan. 15, five days before it left office, it said up to $3 billion of the $13 billion approved by Congress in December was available, mostly for payment to contract growers of hogs, poultry and eggs and in “top up” payments for hog producers.

“What I’ve been told is that for the resources that have already been expended, roughly the top 10 percent of producers in the country received 60 percent of those benefits,” said Vilsack. “The bottom 10 percent received 0.26 percent of those benefits.” He said remaining pandemic funds should be distributed “in a way that provides overall equity and fairness in the distribution of the support payments.”

The agriculture provisions of the Biden rescue plan include $3.6 billion for food donations, grants to small processors and protective equipment for workers, $3.5 billion for a three-month extension of a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits and $1 billion for public nutrition in U.S. territories along with the $5 billion for socially disadvantage farmers. “When these resources are distributed, we want to make sure they’re done in a fair and reasonable way,” said Vilsack.

Goodmon’s duties will include ensuring that the concerns of Black, indigenous and people of color farmers heard by USDA leaders and “bringing an equity lens to decision-making of all kinds,” said USDA.

Also on Monday, Andy Green was appointed USDA senior adviser for fair and competitive markets. Vilsack told the NFU that “the focus of the Biden USDA is going to be on new, more, better and fair markets.” The USDA will consider stronger rules on fair play in marketing and in price discovery, he said.

Green was a senior fellow for economic policy at the think tank Center for American Progress before joining USDA. He also has served as a Senate staff worker and a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We must create a more level playing field for small and medium producers and a more balanced, equitable economy for everyone working in food and agriculture, including immigrants and seasonal farmworkers,” said Vilsack in an statement that accompanied the appointment of Goodmon and Green.