USDA's equity commission urges 'sweeping and generational change'

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The independent commission’s report also included some to-do items for lawmakers.

The Agriculture Department has new guidance from its equity commission, which delivered over 60 recommendations to the department late last week to improve how it works with farmers and ranchers, delivers nutrition assistance, supports rural communities and more. 

The goal of the independent equity commission, established in 2022, was “to identify additional steps for embedding equity into USDA’s policies, practices and processes,” Ertharin Cousin and Arturo Rodríguez, the co-chairs of the commission, wrote a letter to the secretary included in the report. 

The report states that inequitable past practices by USDA continue to impact Americans today, citing historical policies and eligibility requirements that didn’t recognize Indigenous practices, made it harder for small and mid-sized producers to compete, displaced Black farmers, excluded farmworkers from benefits like overtime and more.

“Historic injustices have created barriers to access to USDA programs which have caused present day challenges regarding wealth disparity, heirs’ property issues, lack of awareness and use of innovative technology and relatively smaller farm sizes,” the report reads. “Unfortunately, some individuals who have interacted with USDA have come away with the belief that discrimination, bias, or unfairness played a role in limiting their access to services and benefits.”

Among the recommendations are some the commission says will help the department institutionalize a focus on equality, including by designating an executive-level career staffer to be responsible for language access in Agriculture’s programs and services — an issue that’s already a focus under a language access plan the agency issued last November.

The commission also wants Agriculture to put in place a routine customer feedback loop — something the department doesn’t have right now, its chief customer experience officer told Nextgov/FCW last summer— and focus on supplier diversity in its contracting programs.  

The report also focuses on Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency loan programs because of the agency’s role as “an entry point for those seeking assistance from” the department, the report notes, offering recommendations like plain language improvements and flexibility around the timing and processing of loans. 

Tech improvements are also featured among the recommendations: The commission urges Agriculture to use Technology Modernization Funding to revamp as a way to consolidate information about the complex mass of programs meant for rural communities. 

The commission did not limit its recommendations to just the agency itself, as some will also require action from lawmakers to be implemented. 

Among the recommendations for lawmakers, one focuses on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — urging Agriculture to “seek legislative authority to hold states accountable for barriers to access and require states to develop processes for beneficiaries to be involved in program and systems design and evaluation.” 

The commission also recommends that Congress change policies limiting access to nutrition programs based on things like immigration status.

The commission’s new report isn’t the only equity agenda item for Agriculture, as the agency recently released an updated equity action plan, as required by a 2023 Biden executive order. 

“USDA is committed to improving access to our programs, equipping people with the resources they need and improving America’s food system to create more, better, and fairer markets for producers and consumers alike,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a statement about the plan.