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Some USDA programs have been mired in inequity. A panel's final report offers changes

Handy Kennedy, founder of AgriUnity cooperative, counts his cows on HK Farms on April 20, 2021 in Cobbtown, Ga. The cooperative is a group of Black farmers formed to better their chances of success by putting their resources together to reduce their overhead costs.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
Handy Kennedy, founder of AgriUnity cooperative, counts his cows on HK Farms on April 20, 2021 in Cobbtown, Ga. The cooperative is a group of Black farmers formed to better their chances of success by putting their resources together to reduce their overhead costs.

An equity commission created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released over 60 recommendations it says will finally bring more fairness to policies affecting farming and rural America.

The department has sprawling oversight of policies affecting not just farming subsidies but widely utilized nutrition assistance programs and rural development projects, such as utilities, broadband and homebuilding.

"Many of the issues and recommendations we identified are not new," wrote the commission's leaders, United Farm Workers President Emeritus Arturo Rodriguez and Ertharin Cousin, former U.S. Ambassador for Food Security and executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, in thecommission's final report released Thursday. "However, they will require renewed commitment from USDA to improve its customer-facing business processes and address historical inequities whose impacts continue to the present moment."

This final report builds on interim recommendationsthe commission made last year when it released a preliminary set of 32 changes it believed USDA could get a head start on, including making it easier for farmers to qualify for conservation programs and making the language more accessible.

"It's not easy to look at mistakes head on and recognize where we miss the mark, but the Equity Commission is driving that work at USDA," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Torres Small, the first Latina in the position. "Secretary Vilsack and former Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh started the Equity Commission to build a more equitable and fair future for everyone who participates in agriculture. Today is a momentous day as we receive the final report, recognize the crucial efforts of each member of our Equity Commission and Subcommittees, and commit to the work ahead."

What does the commission recommend?

The USDA Equity Commission was born from a Biden executive order in 2022 — and subsequent congressional funding — calling for federal departments to address racial equity and underserved communities. It was originally spearheaded by former USDA Deputy Secretary Bronaugh until her departure last February. She was the first Black woman to hold such a high role in the department.

The group met last fall to vote on 66 recommendations that touch on many of the issues that have placed the department at the forefront of national conversations, such as concerns over Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland and equity access issues for low-interest farming loans. The recommendations range from the care of farmworkers to the implementation of nutrition assistance programs and increasing the development of housing.

Among the commission's newest recommendations include:

  • amend a USDA rural housing program's policies to be more open to alternative and innovative forms of housing construction, like 3D printed and modular; 
  • eliminate the current "one-and-done" funding stipulation that disqualifies rural communities from receiving access to more broadband expansion grants and low interest loans to support broadband — and allow additional USDA funding for communities where broadband does not currently meet the federally established standard;
  • conduct outreach and support small businesses, especially those owned by underrepresented communities in becoming approved SNAP vendors and maintaining eligibility — and support innovative approaches to improving access in food/SNAP access deserts and promoting local food systems;
  • implement proposed changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages to better support access to culturally appropriate foods;
  • add the USDA secretary as a permanent member of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has the authority to review, approve, or deny any proposed U.S. land purchases by those in other countries that might raise national concerns;
  • ensure equitable funding to community-led land access and transition projects by making funding available as a line of credit or grant prior to purchase.

There are also dozens more recommendations that range from supporting efforts that help create a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, conducting research into how USDA's various grant and loan programs are run, advising on where to expand staffing if given the funds from Congress, expanding language access for USDA programs and more.

The report attempts to tackle a broader discriminatory past

President Biden campaigned in part on the promise that he would bring equity to agriculture and rejuvenate rural economies. After last year's interim report, USDA hired and established its first chief diversity and inclusion officer and touted its expanded outreach with Tribal nations, its climate justice initiatives and its new effort to help those with limited English proficiency access USDA programs and resources as well as its informational materials for noncitizens.

Nearly two decades ago a class action lawsuit led by Black farmers against the USDA was settled. Then there was a class action from Native Americans, Hispanic farmers, and women farmers. Even after lawsuits from minority groups, many others, including smaller farmers as well as young and beginning farmers, say they are constantly left out of USDA's programs and structure.

They say barriers to access to programs include incorrect denials, cumbersome paperwork and a lack of clear communication about what applicants could qualify for to begin with.

In fact, an NPR analysis from last year found across the first two years of the Biden administration, Black and Asian-identifying farmers were the least successful in acquiring a direct loan, data shows.

Advocates for farmers of color have argued that rejections and withdrawals often happen because the multi-step application process is too cumbersome and confusing. Those whose families have generational experience and long-standing outside resources to navigate the federal bureaucracy sail through. And this lack of access is credited as one of the reasons for a sharp decline in particularly Black-owned farmland over the last centuries.

In the final report, the equity commission makes recommendations to address some of the language barriers, credit barriers and issues proving generational landownership that have also resulted in discrimination.

Though USDA has tried to emphasize working with these often-left-out groups, criticism has continued. A race-targeted program to cancel the debt of farmers of color wasmade race-neutral after lawsuits backed by conservative outfitsstalled the program in courts. A $3 billion program aimed to help farmers and ranchers reduce their emissions has an equity portion, but USDA continues to face distrust.

Congress has also allocated $2.2 billion for USDA to pay farmers who can show they were discriminated against. Farmers had until earlier this month to apply.

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.