The Field Report

The Field Report: Can Lawsuits Right Historic Wrongs for Black Farmers?

Published by
Lisa Held

Welcome to The Field Report, our new weekly round-up of easy-to-digest stories. Each week, we’ll keep you updated on the most important food system news out of Washington, D.C. and around the country, with added perspective, analysis, and context. Email lisa@civileats.com with tips.

 Over the last several decades, Black farmers and their families have used lawsuits to respond to decades of historic discrimination by government agencies. Now, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund has launched a two-year research project in an attempt to understand how that litigation has actually impacted the farmers and their families.

According to the organization, the research, which will be done in collaboration with The Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University, will focus on the experiences and voices of Black farmers who received settlements in Pigford v. Glickman. In Pigford, Black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for racial discrimination and earned what was—in 1999—the largest civil rights settlement in the history of the United States. And in the end, only 30,000 farmers were compensated.

“Now that it’s been enough time that we can possibly track some generational outcomes, we’re looking at whether that lump sum actually had a positive impact on the farm operation, families’ wealth, and overall economic stability,” Dania Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation, told Civil Eats. “We’re trying to evaluate whether class action litigation is an effective strategy in trying to repair some of this gross and horrific legacy of racial discrimination.”

More recently, an attempt by the Biden administration to provide debt relief to Black farmers was halted by lawsuits brought by white farmers. In November, we covered the Federation’s attempt to intervene in one of those suits, but a federal judge later rejected the motion. Additional attempts to correct injustices against Black farmers have so far been stymied; a new debt relief proposal is stalled within the Build Back Better Act, and lawmakers have introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act multiple times, but it hasn’t moved through Congress.

The Federation is continuing its current fight in court through an appeal, Davy said, but as the case and new policies wind their way through the courts and Congress, the research project announced by the Federation will be focus attention on the people affected and give those fighting on their behalf more targeted insights into the right path forward. “It will help us better understand whether litigation is an effective means of advocacy . . . to address and mitigate the harms,” Davy said.

Read More:
Black Farmers Await Debt Relief as Lawmakers Resolve Racist Lawsuits
Tracy McCurty Works to See Historic Wrongs Righted for Black Farmers
What Reparations Could Mean for Black Farmers

A Side of Sequestration. In other (very different) research news, a study published by a group of scientists from institutions around the world found that reducing the amount of meat eaten in high-income countries could have even more of an impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought. The researchers looked at the impacts of shifting high-income countries to the EAT-Lancet diet, which a previous panel of experts identified as an optimal way to eat for sustainability and health. The diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and includes small amounts of meat, dairy, and fish. Researchers found that if the land freed up by reducing meat, eggs, and dairy was returned to its natural vegetation, it could result in a substantial “double carbon benefit.” By focusing attention primarily on high-income countries, the research also addresses some of the controversies that arose around the publication of the original diet in 2019—namely that it would be unaffordable for individuals in lower-income countries and that reducing meat consumption would negatively affect smallholder farmers there. Of course, how to ensure that the land is rewilded and not developed or used for other industrial purposes is an open question.

Read More:
New Research Confirms What We Eat Is Central to the Climate Crisis
Taking Stock and Looking Forward: Climate and Animal Agriculture

The Climate in D.C. After last week’s USDA announcements on expanding farm conservation programs, the agency turned its attention to research and fires. It announced a new $9 million investment in partnerships between Cooperative Extension programs at universities and USDA Climate Hubs to accelerate climate research and connect farmers more directly to climate-smart solutions and a 10-year plan to reduce wildfires. But while Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack followed up with a press release outlining his “key accomplishments” on climate since he took office a year ago, the Biden administration’s larger climate goals are on thin ice and activists are concerned the president won’t deliver on his promises. The Build Back Better Act, which was supposed to be the most historic investment in climate mitigation to date, is all but dead as a result of resistance from senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), and last week, two key staffers stewarding Biden’s climate and environmental justice agenda resigned.

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Read More:
A Comprehensive New Federal Roadmap for Climate Action on Farms
Where Does Joe Biden Stand on Climate and Agriculture?

Restaurant Relief Underfunded. Over the past month, the Omicron surge provided new setbacks for restaurants that had reopened, and on Tuesday, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) called for a “Day of Action” to call on federal lawmakers to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). As a result, restaurants and chefs across the country asked their followers on social media to call their representatives, posting with the hashtags #SaveRestaurants and #ReplenishRRF.

In a press release, the organization described one facet of the larger story, comparing those who have received funding through RRF with those who have not. A survey of 1,200 independent restaurants and bars across the country found that 42 percent of businesses that did not receive RRF grants are in danger of filing for or have already filed for bankruptcy, compared to just 20 percent among those who did. Twenty-eight percent of businesses that did not receive RRF grants face eviction.

“The Omicron surge has pushed many restaurants to the brink,” IRC’s executive director Erika Polmar said. “These businesses are filing for bankruptcy and receiving eviction notices after crying out for help for nearly two years.” According to the National Restaurant Association, 90,000 restaurants have closed since COVID-19’s arrival. Nearly 200,000 restaurants that applied for RRF grants did not receive them, in large part due to the fact that only $28.6 billion was appointed to the fund, while the grants requested by restaurateurs totaled more than $75 billion.

Read More:
Restaurants Are at the Mercy of Delivery Apps, but Can They Survive the Pandemic Without Them?
Black-Owned Restaurants in Detroit Are Hard Hit by the Pandemic

States Expand SNAP. Speaking of restaurants, two years ago, Civil Eats reported on three states that were working to utilize a provision within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that allows users to spend their benefits on hot and prepared meals from restaurants and grocery stores. While groceries are usually the only purchases covered by SNAP benefits, supporters of the Restaurant Meals Program say it is a crucial service for food insecure individuals who cannot (or don’t have time to) cook due to disabilities, age, homelessness, and other barriers. Now, Stateline reports that the program is gaining more momentum and six states have officially opted in. Meanwhile, Modern Farmer reported on a little-known provision of SNAP that allows users to purchase seeds and seedlings to grow their own produce.

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Lisa Held

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism.

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Lisa Held
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