A wash of Walton family funding to news media is creating echo chambers in environmental journalism, and beyond. Are editorial firewalls up to the task?
February 10, 2021
Before taking office, President Biden committed to assembling a diverse administration that would “look like the country.” Then, hours after the inauguration, he began laying out a plan to go beyond representation, to root out inequities within the federal government, and to advance racial justice. He directed all agencies to complete “equity assessments” within 200 days and appointed Susan Rice, national security adviser under former President Barack Obama, to oversee the efforts.
“We need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government,” Biden said less than a week later, while signing four more related executive orders—to reform private prisons, address discriminatory housing practices, improve tribal consultation, and condemn racism against Asian Americans. “Every White House component, and every agency will be involved in this work because advancing equity has to be everyone’s job.”
Many of those agencies impact food and agriculture, and their new leaders will have their work cut out for them—from righting a lengthy history of wrongs against Black farmers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prioritizing the impacts of agricultural pollution on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To that end, experts and advocates in the space have been tracking Biden’s appointments closely.
For top cabinet positions, the Senate is currently holding confirmation hearings, with six members confirmed so far, all outside of food and agriculture agencies. Nominees to lead the USDA, the EPA, and the Department of Labor (DOL) have had committee hearings, but votes on their confirmations are not yet scheduled. Beyond those roles, the new administration is filling hundreds of additional positions within the agencies that support and regulate the food system, which will determine broader representation and impact policies and programs.
As confirmations proceed, Civil Eats surveyed what we know so far about how the Biden administration is prioritizing diversity and justice in federal food policy. While the insiders and advocates we spoke with said it’s too soon to know how deep the commitment will extend and whether these agencies will make real strides toward addressing the intertwined issues of racial, food, and environmental justice, most agree that the winds are shifting.
“[Biden] is not looking for figureheads. He’s actually looking for people that know their stuff,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “In positions where normally you see white males, we’re seeing women, we’re seeing people of color, and we’re seeing people with expertise and track records.” But, he added, “we need to see the full slate before we can tell what the picture is going to be in terms of equity.”
In addition to selecting Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden has nominated more women than any other recent president to the 15 top cabinet positions. On race, a Brookings analysis found his cabinet included about the same number of non-white nominees as those of Presidents Obama and Clinton, but more than recent Republican administrations (and double that of President Donald Trump’s cabinet).
Among agencies that touch food and agriculture, Representative Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) stands out as the first Native American woman ever nominated to a cabinet position. “There you will have a Native American woman leading the department that historically has been in charge of breaking apart and basically handing out not only Native American land . . . but other land-based wealth,” Salvador said.
Food insecurity is widespread on tribal lands, and Haaland has relied on federal food stamps herself. As a member of Congress, the member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe has worked to increase food aid and expand it on reservations. Many tribes are currently working to rebuild food sovereignty on their lands, and Haaland would oversee their interests. She has promised to prioritize environmental justice and the interests of marginal communities. Tribal leaders are pushing for Haaland’s confirmation, while many Republicans are fighting it based on her opposition to oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Her confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California and the son of a Mexican immigrant, will potentially be the first Latino to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Becerra is known for his dedication to expanding and defending health care access, especially for low-income communities and women. He also repeatedly sued the Trump administration on issues related to the environment, immigration, and health care.
HHS has major implications for the food system as it oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency in charge of regulating food labeling and additives, food safety, antibiotics for livestock, and, along with other agencies, genetically engineered foods (among other things). While Biden has not yet nominated anyone to lead the FDA, recent Bloomberg reporting suggests he’s considering Janet Woodcock, an agency veteran who is currently serving as acting director.
Additionally, Biden chose Boston mayor Marty Walsh to lead the DOL, which includes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency tasked with overseeing workplace health and safety regulations. Though Walsh is a white man, he has been an advocate for immigrant rights, unions, and a $15 minimum wage, all issues that deeply impact the food system and its disproportionately Black and Brown workforce. Groups that represent the interests of food workers, including Farmworker Justice and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), have supported Walsh’s nomination.
Advocates are paying the most attention, however, to the agency with the most direct impact on the food system: the USDA. The USDA has a long history of discriminating against Black farmers. It also oversees school nutrition programs, which millions of students of color rely on, and the dietary guidelines, which some advocates say do not adequately consider racial disparities in nutrition and food access.
Before Biden nominated Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture, progressive groups actively campaigned against him based on his ties to agribusiness.
Meanwhile, groups that represent Black farmers spoke out about Vilsack’s previous failure to address civil rights abuses at the department. Advocates pushed for other candidates, including former Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and Representative Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who would have been the first Black woman to lead the department. Biden ultimately chose Fudge to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development instead.
Now, as Vilsack’s confirmation seems imminent, some progressive groups are keeping up the resistance, but others are encouraged by his recent words and actions.
In January, he held calls with Black farmers around the country. “The calls were a start, and if confirmed, I will go to USDA with the understanding there is a lot more that needs to be done and accomplished at USDA to respond to the concerns and needs of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged producers,” Vilsack told The Washington Post. In an interview with Art Cullen at the Storm Lake Times, he identified “equity and inclusion” as his second priority after COVID relief.
And, after Vilsack met with progressive groups including HEAL Food Alliance and Friends of the Earth, many advocates were encouraged by his willingness to listen to their concerns. “He really heard the critique on the civil rights abuse piece,” said Navina Khanna, executive director of HEAL. “It’s clear he knows that he’s going to need to prove himself in that arena. But civil rights includes more than [Black farmers]. And we really need USDA leadership that’s looking across the board at what it is to be accountable to . . . frontline communities.”
At his hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on February 2, Vilsack said he would “work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” adding that he would “build the most diverse team in the department’s history.” He also indicated he was open to setting up a commission on equity. The Committee voted unanimously for approval, setting him up for quick confirmation in the full Senate.
Representative David Scott (D-Georgia), the first African-American chair of the powerful House Agriculture Committee, which works with the USDA, has also set racial justice as one of his top priorities. In January, he told Civil Eats he planned to invite Vilsack to a hearing in which Black farmers share their experiences with members of Congress.
Who Vilsack appoints to serves under him will be a key factor in whether or not he makes good on his recent promises, Khanna added.
In reversing his record on Black farmers, Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit cooperative association of Black farmers, landowners, and cooperatives, has also pointed to the importance of diversity throughout the agency.
So far, the administration has tapped Dr. Jewell Hairston Bronaugh to the number-two position at the USDA. Bronaugh was previously Virginia’s agriculture commissioner and will be the first Black woman to serve as deputy secretary. She also worked in Virginia for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which helps farmers access federal programs. “[Bronaugh] understands the Farm Service Agency, which is one of the branches of the USDA that has actually been the most discriminatory,” Salvador noted.
Racial justice advocates approve of Vilsack’s other USDA picks as well. For chief of staff, Salvador supports the choice of Katharine Ferguson, who he described as “one of the more thoughtful and knowledgeable anti-hunger advocates that I’ve ever worked with.” Ferguson, who is white, previously directed the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group, which works on equity and economic opportunity in rural America.
And Khanna was encouraged by the choice of Kumar Chandran as a senior advisor on nutrition. Chandran served in the USDA under Obama and then worked as policy director at FoodCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting healthy school food. Additionally, Harvard Public Health Policy Professor Sara Bleich, appointed as a senior advisor on COVID-19, has focused her research on food insecurity and racial injustice.
Vilsack has already vowed to put the climate crisis back on the agenda at the USDA—after the agency spent four years burying climate research and barring the use of the term “climate” altogether under Trump—and most advocates expect that will happen. But how the agency will approach the intersection between climate change and racial injustice in agriculture remains to be seen.
When it comes to concerns, Chloe Waterman, a food program manager at Friends of the Earth, is particularly troubled by discussions around carbon markets and methane digesters as climate solutions. While many mainstream environmental groups and farm groups support those initiatives, progressive groups like FOE say that these strategies perpetuate inequalities without making meaningful climate progress. For example, methane digesters are often located near communities of color and are associated with heavy concentrations of industrial dairies.
“If President Biden’s commitment to environmental justice is serious, then relying on digesters and biogas and carbon markets as climate solutions is simply not an option,” Waterman said. “In terms of achieving emissions reductions, they sound good on paper, but when they’ve been put into practice, they have disproportionately left communities of color [impacted by] pollution.”
Advocates like Waterman will likely have any ally in Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey)—the most outspoken critic of industrial animal agriculture and its impacts on communities of color in Congress. On February 3, Booker was appointed to the Senate Agriculture Committee along with Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia). It is the first time in history two Black senators have served on the committee. Earlier this week, Booker also re-introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, and Warnock introduced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which would provide $5 billion to farmers of color.
The EPA tackles a wide range of environmental issues, including regulating pesticides and air and water pollution from agriculture.
Because that pollution disproportionately affects BIPOC communities, an environmental justice framework will be essential to prioritizing equity at the EPA too, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, who worked for the agency for 24 years. He was the lead author on a recent Environmental Protection Network report on how to refocus EPA priorities around environmental justice.
“I’m hoping that this administration will begin to finally address the disparities that exist,” he said, noting that one of the first steps is building diversity into the team. “When communities come and engage and they don’t see anyone who looks like them, that sends a message.”
Biden has nominated Michael Regan as EPA administrator; he would be the first Black man to lead the agency, if confirmed. Regan previously ran North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, where pollution from industrial pork operations is a major issue that affects rural Black residents. And he’d inherit an agency that profoundly weakened its environmental regulations under Trump, including on pesticides used in agriculture.
At his hearing in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on February 3, Regan said there was work to be done to restructure and reallocating resources to environmental justice. “Not only do I look forward to structuring EPA so that we can adequately respond, but I look forward to partnering with . . . Congress so that we can be sure that where we have gaps in our laws and regulations, that we can rectify that so that we are ensuring all Americans have access to clean air, clean water, and [a] clean environment to live in,” he said. Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee voted yesterday to advance his nomination to the full Senate.
In North Carolina, Regan set up an environmental justice advisory board and worked closely with disadvantaged communities, although some advocacy groups say he didn’t do enough to clean up pollution from hog farms. Industry groups, including the National Pork Producers Council, are supporting his nomination and say he has “an established record of listening to all stakeholders.”
Booker has already met with Regan. In addition to the urgency of climate change, Booker told Insider New Jersey, “We also discussed how Congress and the Biden administration can work together to address the environmental injustices that have historically burdened low-income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous communities and the importance of prioritizing and providing more resources for the work of the EPA Office of Civil Rights.”
Ali has known Regan for many years and said he would be a “a fair regulator, which is part of the responsibility in protecting public health and the environment.” But, he added, “he will need to be surrounded by other great folks who have different competencies.”
In the role of the EPA’s deputy administrator, the Environmental Protection Network also supports the appointment of Janet McCabe. McCabe, who is white, is the director of the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University, which has helped local governments develop climate action plans and facilitated research on how utility shut-offs affect people of color.
A number of BIPOC professionals are also joining the EPA, including Radha Adhar as associate administrator for policy, Rosemary Enobakhare as associate administrator for public engagement and environmental education, and Radhika Fox as principal deputy assistant administrator in the office of water.
Ali said for this diversity to be meaningful, it needs to be seen all the way down the line—including middle management.
“I think all of the seeds that were planted by environmental justice leaders and others 40 years ago are now finally beginning to bear fruit,” Ali continued. “The question is: Are we going to build the infrastructure that’s necessary for environmental justice to be successful both in the federal government and on the state on local level?”
Waterman at Friends of the Earth is asking similar big-picture questions.
“A racially diverse leadership team . . . is a crucial prerequisite for achieving Biden’s goals around racial justice,” she said. “But it’s not everything we need. We need personnel that . . . have traditionally been underrepresented.”
Whether it’s the team working on equity and nutrition standards in the National School Lunch Program or regulating emissions from industrial animal agriculture facilities, Waterman’s hope—one that many advocates for racial justice in the food system share—is to see federal agencies that begin to prioritize people over profit. “My core question is: In these places where racial justice and the interests of corporate agribusiness are pitted against each other, which will come out on top?”
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