Making USDA More Equitable

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

3 min read.

For the past two years, I have had the honor of serving on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Equity Commission. Section 1006 of the American Rescue Plan directed the USDA to create this commission, building on President Biden’s January 2021 Executive Order 13985 On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. At today’s USDA equity summit, the Commission released its final report, which contains 66 recommendations for improving equity within USDA’s programs, policies, and practices.  

For the first several meetings of the Equity Commission, I wasn’t sure what I had to contribute. I was appointed to the Commission as a policy expert, presumably because of my deep knowledge of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and previous experience working in the federal government. But we immediately dove deeply into issues related to agriculture that I knew nothing about. I spent a lot of time reading the background materials we were given and making notes of questions that I needed to ask. 

As a Commission, we reviewed multiple reports dating back to 1965 that documented concerns with inequity and discrimination at USDA and made recommendations. In reading those reports and other background materials and listening to my fellow members of the commission and its agriculture subcommittee, I learned about the lasting harm caused by historical discrimination and understood why this was where we started. For example, I learned how under “base acres,” seemingly identical plots of land are worth different amounts, depending on how much payments they qualify for from USDA, which in turn depends on what crops were planted on them in the 1990s – a period when USDA has been proven in court to have been discriminating against Black and Native American farmers. 

Eventually, I told myself that if USDA didn’t want us to also make recommendations about the nutrition programs – which account for more than two-thirds of all USDA spending – they wouldn’t have put me on the Commission. So, while I learned from my counterparts about agriculture, rural development, and research and extension programs, I shared with them about the inequities in SNAP and other nutrition programs, and the relationships between federal policy and state administration. 

I am proud of the work that we did as a Commission. Our 66 recommendations address how to institutionalize equity across the Department, including language access, improving the customer experience, procurement, and ensuring that the Office of Civil Rights has the necessary resources to do its job. The recommendations cover how USDA works with farmers, ranchers, and producers; with farmworkers and their families; with land-grant universities; and with all residents of rural America.  For example, we recommended equitable funding for “minority-serving institutions” that are land grant colleges and universities but that have never received comparable funding to those that were first funded in 1862, resulting in inequitable access to technical assistance as well as education. 

The Commission’s recommendations also address the nutrition programs that serve more than 40 million people.  We recommended legislative actions to reduce inequities, including lifting restrictions based on immigration status, providing equitable access to residents of Puerto Rico and other insular territories, ending the time limit on benefit receipt for unemployed people who are not living with dependent children, and removing the ban on SNAP assistance for people with previous drug felony convictions. We also made administrative recommendations, including supporting state agencies in consulting with participants to improve the experience of applying for and receiving benefits. 

Recognizing the critical roles that immigrants play in our agriculture and food systems, the Commission also called for clear and accessible pathways to citizenship.  We included recommendations to ensure that all farmworkers receive equitable compensation and labor protections, and that farmworkers and their families can access food and housing. 

But if the report we released today is the final result of the Commission, I will consider it a failure. The Equity Commission will be a success only if these recommendations have an impact on policy and practice—not just now but lasting into future administrations. Some of our recommendations are beyond the power of USDA to adopt without Congressional authorization. Because Congress did not pass a Farm Bill in 2023 but instead extended current law for a year, there is an opportunity to begin incorporating recommendations from this report into law as soon as this year. 

Our final report is out, but the Equity Commission members’ terms last through this year. Our job now is to make sure that this is not just another report with good intentions, but one that leads to overdue and lasting change.