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USDA Equity Commission task: ‘Prevent wrongs in the future’

After referring to the USDA’s self-admitted history of racial discrimination, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said an administration-picked 15-member Equity Commission would try “to prevent wrongs in the future.” The commission met for the first time on Monday, the final day of Black History Month.

“This is some of the most important work that will be undertaken by USDA over the course of the next several years. We are committed to it,” said Vilsack, who said he hoped to permanently change departmental attitudes and practices.

The USDA has been called “the last plantation” because of racial bias in its operations; it paid $2.2 billion to Black farmers and their descendants in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010. In 2018, it reached a $760 million settlement of the so-called Keepseagle class action lawsuit on behalf of Native Americans. And in 2014, the so-called Garcia lawsuit by Hispanic farmers was resolved through a dispute resolution program.

The Equity Commission is expected to issue an interim report and provide “actionable recommendations” within 12 months of setting to work. Commission member Ertharin Cousin, former director of the World Food Program, said she hoped the commission’s work could influence the next farm bill, due in late 2023.

Lawmakers typically begin work on the panoramic legislation, which ranges from SNAP to farm subsidies and rural economic development, months in advance. The House Agriculture Committee, for instance, scheduled a hearing for Tuesday with farm groups to review crop subsidies.

“We understand time is of the essence,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, commission co-chair. She is the first Black woman to serve as deputy secretary. The interim report should be available in advance of farm bill drafting, she said.

Commission members were named on Feb. 10 along with a 13-member agriculture subcommittee. Bronaugh said a rural community and economic development subcommittee would also be appointed in the next couple of months. Vilsack indicated there might be others.

A year ago, Vilsack appointed USDA’s first racial equity adviser, Dewayne Goldman, and said an equity commission would be formed to “identify and root out any systemic racism that may exist” in USDA programs. There has been backlash since then, such as lawsuits that have halted a debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers on grounds they unfairly exclude white farmers.

“This commission has a lot to do and is committed to tackling head-on the past discriminations and current policies that we all know continue to this day,” said Bronaugh. “My sincere hope is that together we can make recommendations, as the secretary said, that are lasting and result in lasting change.”

“I am very interested in whatever advances we can make,” said commission co-chair Arturo Rodriguez, former president of the United Farm Workers union. An estimated half of U.S. farmworkers are undocumented immigrants.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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