U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Highlights Key Work in 2021 to Advance Equity

Posted: January 20, 2022 at 2:27 pm

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2022 – Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued the following statement highlighting key steps the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken to advance equity under the Biden-Harris Administration. Under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA has taken bold, historic action toward rooting out generations of systemic racism, deeply integrating equity in decision-making and policymaking inclusive of all USDA employees and customers.

“During the first year of the Biden-Harris Administration, this Department has made historic strides in how, and who, we serve,” said Vilsack. “It is a priority for USDA to ensure that all can benefit from our programs and services, and I am proud of the work this Department has done, and will continue to do, to meet the needs of the agriculture community.”

Key USDA accomplishments during 2021 include:

  • Ensuring Pandemic Assistance benefits all of agriculture: Under the previous administration’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), only 4% of funding went to historically underserved farmers and ranchers (among those who identified their race and/or ethnicity). After identifying gaps in previous COVID-19 relief funding, USDA announced ‘Pandemic Assistance for Producers’ to distribute resources more equitably and committed to directing at least $6 billion to the agricultural producers and sectors that needed assistance most via the newly-established initiative. Among other funding opportunities, the Pandemic Assistance Initiative includes re-opening signup for CFAP2, $700 million in grants to provide relief to farm and food workers affected by COVID-19, $700 million to provide relief for small producers, processors, farmers markets and seafood vessels affected by COVID-19, and $2 million to establish partnerships with organizations to provide outreach and technical assistance to historically underserved farmers and ranchers. As a result, there was a fourfold increase in participation among historically underserved producers in CFAP 2 since April 2021.
  • Resolving heirs’ property succession issues: In July, USDA announced it was providing $67 million in competitive loans through its new Heirs’ Property Relending Program to help agricultural producers and landowners resolve heirs’ land ownership and succession issues.
  • Investing in Historically Black Colleges and Universities: USDA announced an investment of over $21.8 million to support research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities at our nation’s Land-Grant University System. These investments are designed to build capacity for teaching, research and extension activities at eligible institutions including curriculum design, materials development, faculty development, student recruitment and retention, and expansion program development support.
  • Strengthening commitments to Hispanic-Serving Institutions: In October, USDA announced $12 million for Hispanic-Serving Institutions of higher education to help strengthen their ability to attract, retain and graduate underrepresented students pursuing careers in agriculture, natural resources and human sciences.
  • Renewed commitment to tribal nations: Secretary Vilsack restored and empowered USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations to a free-standing office that can maintain the nation-to-nation relationship as is required both by law and by treaty. At the White House Tribal Leaders Summit in November, USDA announced several new initiatives to support Indigenous agriculture and tribal communities. Among these initiatives is the USDA Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, which promotes traditional food ways, Indian Country food and agriculture markets, and Indigenous health through foods tailored to American Indian/Alaska Native dietary needs. USDA also committed to expanding tribal self-determination (PDF, 201 KB) by enabling greater self-governance and decision-making on USDA programs and policies that affect tribal nations. Additionally, USDA announced a Tribal Treaty Database in partnership with the Department of the Interior and Oklahoma State University and the USDA Hall of Tribal Nations.
  • Conservation assistance for underserved producers: In August, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced up to $50 million in cooperative agreements to support historically underserved farmers and ranchers with climate-smart agriculture and forestry. Just last week, NRCS announced this investment will fund 118 partnerships. Additionally, as part of selecting recipients for funding through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and Conservation Innovation Grants, additional priority was provided to projects benefiting historically underserved producers.
  • Risk management education for underserved producers: USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) invested nearly $1 million in 2021 in risk management education and training programs to support historically underserved producers and small-scale producers. Just last week, RMA announced it plans to double that investment in 2022, investing $2 million.
  • Combating generational poverty: USDA’s Rural Development awarded more than $2 billion in loans, grants, and loan guarantees for historically underserved groups and rural communities that have experienced persistent generational poverty. This includes $1.3 billion for electric infrastructure in communities of persistent poverty, $350 million to help very-low income individuals and families living in persistent poverty areas purchase homes, $25 million to improve water and waste disposal systems in Native American communities, and $9 million to improve community facilities and access to essential services for people living in Appalachian communities.
  • Tribal collaboration on National Forests: The USDA Forest Service is restoring tribal co-management authority of the National Forest System through collaborative demonstration projects on forest restoration, fuels treatment, and habitat health. Additionally, the Forest Service Alaska Region has entered into a 5-year agreement with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska to strengthen tribal relations and center tribal perspectives on the Tongass National Forest. In November, USDA announced it was taking steps to restore protections to more than nine million acres of inventoried roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest by repealing the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule.
  • Diversity and civil rights at USDA: The Department has assembled a leadership team that is experienced in working with historically underrepresented communities and committed to shaping more inclusive policies. USDA is issuing strong civil rights policies and updating anti-harassment policies to set expectations and hold USDA employees accountable. To ensure equity is front and center in policy development and decision-making in a cross-cutting way, USDA for the first time ever, created a position — Senior Advisor for Racial Justice and Equity — in the Office of the Secretary to be an internal advocate for underserved producers and communities.

In 2022, USDA will continue to prioritize equity and opportunity. Among these efforts:

  • Advancing equity in agriculture via economic opportunity and investing in the next generation of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural students: The American Rescue Plan includes $1 billion that will enable USDA to better address the needs of historically underserved populations via technical assistance, access to land and support for efforts to resolve land title issues, access to credit, and support reaching new markets. To implement these funds, USDA is designing new programs from scratch; the structure, focus and design will reflect input from historically underserved communities, including those received via a recent equity-focused Request for Information. The funds also direct USDA to develop career pathways for the next generation of leaders in agriculture in partnership with minority serving institutions, which will enable USDA to expand, for example, the Pathways Programs.
  • In support of Executive Order 13985 Advancing Racial Equity and Support to Underserved Communities, a series of stakeholder engagement, request for information, and customer experience assessments were implemented so USDA can have a data-driven and evidence-based approach to its strategy in building trust, reducing barriers, and increasing investments for those who need help the most. USDA will develop an Equity Action Plan that will advance equity at USDA and its programs.
  • USDA will support the Administration’s Justice40 initiative to support Executive Order 14008 Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Justice40 is a whole of government effort to ensure that Federal agencies work with states and local communities in delivering at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. USDA through its existing programs and the new Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act funding will incorporate environmental justice and ensure investments fairly and equitably benefit communities that have been underserved.
  • In 2022, an Equity Commission (including a subcommittee on Agriculture) will advise the Secretary of Agriculture on how USDA can take steps to address programs, policies, systems, structures, and practices that contribute to barriers to inclusion or access, systemic discrimination, or exacerbate or perpetuate racial, economic, health and social disparities. The Equity Commission will deliver actionable recommendations directly to the Secretary of Agriculture within 12 months of the first meeting. A final report will be developed by the Summer of 2023.
  • On the research front, the National Agricultural Statistics Service will launch new products and services to improve data collection that reaches and reflects the diversity of agriculture in the United States.
  • WIC Outreach Campaign – FNS convened more than 30 stakeholder sessions to inform the development and implementation of a national WIC Public Health Outreach Campaign to increase awareness of the health and nutrition benefits associated with participating in WIC. FNS will evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign at increasing WIC enrollment and participant retention, while reducing disparities in program access and delivery.

To learn more about USDA’s work to advance equity, view FACT SHEET: USDA Activities to Promote Equity. (PDF, 436 KB)