If You Haven’t Heard: USDA unveils its first Equity Action Plan

The Agriculture Department unveiled its first-ever equity action plan Thursday morning, outlining its goals for increasing access to its programs, following decades of criticism that the department left people of color, rural areas and others behind.

As a part of the plan, the department calls on Congress to use the 2023 farm bill to make permanent programs of the March Covid-19 relief package, which provided $1 billion for USDA to provide technical assistance and support to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

The plan follows the establishment of the department’s first-ever equity commission earlier this year. Both were created out of a President Joe Biden executive order signed last year, which called for Federal departments to address racial equity and underserved communities.

“USDA must both take accountability for its role in the precipitous decline in the number of Black farmers in the United States and for erecting barriers that have kept other underserved communities including Native Americans, beginning farmers and ranchers, veteran producers, farm workers, and other underrepresented groups from full and fair access to USDA programs and services, including but not limited to USDA farm programs,” the plan states.

Each office in the department created their own equity action plan to which they will be held accountable for progress on a quarterly basis. Here is a brief rundown:

Rural Development: USDA is looking to help expand technical assistance to help underserved producers receive business planning and financial management services.

In fiscal year 2022, USDA is expecting to invest at least $100 million of the March Covid relief funding to create additional partnerships with technical assistance providers that serve underserved communities, launch programming to make support available for issues like land access, heirs’ property, and help with market development and access.

At the same time, USDA plans to increase workforce development so it has “an organization that has the staff, skills, programming, relationships, accountability, and trust to do a greater share of this work itself in the long run.”

Additionally, the government wide contracting goal, as set and monitored by the Small Business Administration for Small-Disadvantaged Businesses (SDB) has historically been set at 10 percent, according to USDA, but the department now plans to implement and roll out a 21.5 percent SDB contracting goal across the department.

Nutrition assistance: USDA plans to use its Food and Nutrition Service WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program grants, which formally opened in February, to add non-paper based vouchers — the department argues paper vouchers can limit access to the program and worsens the stigma of being on assistance.

The department also plans on increasing annual average WIC monthly participation by more than 350,000 between 2022 and 2026. “Providing funding to WIC State expands the implementation of online ordering, increased adoption of self-checkout, and collaborations with retail and other WIC partners,” the plan states. “USDA will monitor the successful implementation of WIC online ordering and transactions subgrant projects; and increased adoption (number) of WIC authorized vendors offering online ordering, transactions, and/or self-checkout options”

Geographic equity: Urban farmers have also raised alarm that USDA does not have a strong presence in their areas. In order to address this, USDA plans to increase its material translation services and train staff on various tools and policies related to language translation, reasonable accommodations, cultural sensitivity and civil rights.

“Historically, the lack of USDA offices and presence in urban and suburban areas have been barriers to access, as has the absence of USDA farm programs that are aligned with the needs of urban and suburban agricultural producers,” according to the plan. In order to fix this, within the next two years the department aims to stand up urban agriculture committees and develop new programming that aligns with the needs of urban agricultural producers.

USDA plans to design and implement a simplified direct farm loan application process, along with an online application option which is currently not available, to improve historically underserved producers’ access to capital through USDA programs.

Tribal nations: The department acknowledged that there is inconsistency across USDA in how tribal trust lands are classified and that it “struggles with categorization and therefore eligibility of Tribal Owned Corporations” among other issues that have blocked Tribal nations from engaging with the department.

In the next two years, USDA aims to implement and incorporate a Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and Forest Service tribal demonstration pilots, stabilize a permanent self-determination office and find indigenous positions in each agency, among other actions.

USDA will also implement the Highly Fractionated Indian Land Loan Program with an evaluation of regulatory and procedural changes to ensure alignment with the new Heirs’ Property Relending Program. This aims at helping Tribal members acquire the needed paperwork to prove land ownership to avoid property issues that have long kept some producers and landowners from being able to access USDA programs and services.

What’s next: Immediate next steps include the creation of a Diversity Equity Inclusion and Accessibility strategic plan and hiring a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

As previously reported, the Equity Commission and its Subcommittee for Agriculture will provide an initial set of recommendations in late 2022. Additional recommendations from the Commission’s newly formed rural development subcommittee and any other future subcommittees will be provided no later than 2023.

The agency also vowed to continue “vigorously defending” the stalled $5 billion debt relief for farmers of color program that has been held up in legal battles across the country.

Via Ximena Bustillo, Politico reporter. With permission.

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