Op-ed: One Year In, Where Vilsack’s USDA Stands on 10 Key Measures | Civil Eats

Op-ed: One Year In, Where Vilsack’s USDA Stands on 10 Key Measures

In the first year of his second stint as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack has made some progress on important issues, but other areas in the department are lagging.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks during a daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House May 5, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks during a daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House May 5, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When Tom Vilsack assumed office one year ago this week, he returned for a second stint as Secretary of Agriculture to mixed reviews. His nomination followed a heady period of speculation about other candidates—women, people of color, progressives on labor, hunger, and climate issues—who might have broken the traditional mold. Vilsack’s selection therefore seemed to signal President Biden’s disappointing tendency to resort to the status quo. When I learned of Vilsack’s nomination in December 2020, I detailed a roadmap listing 10 priorities for the incoming Secretary “to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a bold new direction.”

A year later, it’s clear that Vilsack’s USDA has made some progress in a number of important areas and yet there are other areas where the department is lagging. There are reasons for hope and a continued resolve to press for, and support, the department’s new direction.

1. Give Farmers a Climate Mitigation Blueprint

Assessment: Strong start

Vilsack entered the office under pressure to quickly establish simplistic schemes, such as carbon markets and payments for soil carbon banking—a concept weakly supported by the science. Instead, the USDA proceeded methodically to collect stakeholder input in Spring 2021, releasing within three months its synthesis of this feedback and an outline of a comprehensive agenda. The department’s eventual Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience revealed a multiple-purpose approach that will focus on soil and forest health, as well as expanded education, data sharing, and research. The USDA is putting dollars to work, recently announcing $1 billion to support climate smart commodities (“produced using agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon”) and grant funding focused on a systems-based approach to climate.

“The USDA is putting dollars to work, recently announcing $1 billion to support climate smart commodities. However, the USDA’s ‘climate-smart agriculture’ jargon focuses on ‘market-based solutions,’ which are responsible for many of our problems.”

However, the USDA’s “climate-smart agriculture” jargon focuses on “market-based solutions.” Market-based approaches have created many of our current problems, encouraging consumptive use via pricing mechanisms that value extraction while externalizing environmental costs. The USDA should ensure investments in carbon sequestration and climate mitigation are effective over the long term, verifiable, and structured to assure permanence, resilience, and to be accessible and beneficial to farmers of all kinds and scales of operation. As acknowledged by Undersecretary Robert Bonnie before Congress recently, the scheme to fund pilot projects in the recently announced “Climate-Smart Commodities” program is skewed toward very large scale operations, and there is little guarantee that meaningful measurement and verification mechanisms are being built in to assure efficacy of the massive amounts of dollars being made available to commodity farming.

2. Break Up Agribusiness Monopolies

Assessment: Strong start

The Biden administration came into office promising to take on corporate monopolies and promote economic competition. Vilsack has proven willing to take on Big Ag, bluntly charging the big meat and poultry processors with gouging consumers and ripping off farmers. He has committed $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan toward expanding local and regional meat and poultry processing capacity. These funds will support “new competitive entrants”—not owned by one of the giant processors—to increase competition and enable farmers and ranchers to negotiate better prices. A separate $100 million loan guarantee investment will leverage hundreds of millions of additional dollars in lending for new meat and poultry processing capacity.

The Secretary has the authority to crack down on concentration via the century-old Packers and Stockyards Act and he has indicated he will strengthen USDA antitrust regulations—giving more negotiating power to contract meat and poultry farmers and investigating the fairness of prices farmers receive. The USDA and the Department of Justice are actively soliciting tips about illegal activity from farmer and rancher whistleblowers, and partnering to enforce existing antitrust laws. But near-monopolies such as Tyson Foods and others will fight to maintain the status quo, and it remains to be seen whether the Secretary’s efforts will be enough to break the industry’s exploitive, collusive power.

3. Reimagine a New Model for Land Stewardship

Assessment: Strong start

U.S. farmland is 98 percent white-owned. It is largely preserved within and sold between white families across generations. Vilsack has supported efforts to preserve and expand access to land for Black, Indigenous, and socially disadvantaged farmers. One of Vilsack’s priorities on entering office was implementing the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which provided $4 billion to forgive loan debt for socially disadvantaged farmers. But the USDA has had to defend its correction of historical injustice from attacks and legal challenges by white farmers and political operatives who seek to maintain a discriminatory status quo. With its program stalled in court, the USDA is advising members of Congress on new legislation that would fulfill the original intent by targeting “economically distressed” farmers.

Heirs’ land ownership and succession issues have been particularly devastating to Black farmers. Last August, the USDA launched a new Heirs Property Relending Program to help farmers resolve these issues. The Tribal Homelands Initiative, in conjunction with the Department of the Interior, will improve opportunities for tribal co-stewardship of public lands that were previously owned and managed by Indian Tribes. American Rescue Plan funds will support discriminated farmers in accessing land, technical assistance, credit, and other resources. This commitment follows announcements of $50 million to support beginning, underserved, and socially disadvantaged farmers; support for producers left out of early pandemic assistance programs; and $25 million to improve access to USDA programs.

“There remains substantial room for creatively reimagining how farmland can be made available to a much wider range of farmers and stewarded for generations to come.”

As part of addressing historical discrimination in agriculture, the USDA will need to look inward. A request for input on Racial Justice and Equity may help identify obstacles faced by people of color and underserved communities in accessing USDA programs and services. The agency’s new Equity Commission may also use this information to study and recommend ways to eliminate those barriers.

And yet, there remains substantial room for creatively reimagining how farmland can be made available to a much wider range of farmers and stewarded for generations to come. The USDA should ensure that new investments, such as the ones proposed in the Build Back Better Act, are used in ways that help to improve land stewardship equitably and sustainably.

4. Spur Rural Development

Assessment: Strong start

Vilsack has captured the issue succinctly: “For some time, rural America has been at the mercy of the extraction economy.” To build vibrant and sustainable rural communities, there must be greater investment in local and regional food hubs, processing plants, and distribution networks to handle fruits, vegetables, and livestock regionally. This infrastructure would offer greater opportunities for rural employment and economic growth.

There is a long way to go to make that happen, but the USDA has taken several steps in the right direction. In addition to expanding independent meat processing capacity, the department is investing $1.4 billion to “support local businesses, create good-paying jobs and strengthen the rural economy,” with an additional $1 billion for community infrastructure to improve access to health care, education, and public safety.

Additionally, in December 2021, the USDA announced up to $400 million for emergency food assistance purchases of domestic local foods by state and tribal governments. This initiative should help expand local and regional markets and provide business opportunities for historically discriminated farmers and ranchers.

5. Ensure That Everyone Can Eat

Assessment: Strong performance

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put hundreds of thousands of people at greater risk of food insecurity and poor health. Nearly 18 percent of U.S. households with children reported food insecurity early in the pandemic. And though we don’t have a full picture of 2021, 42 million people, including one in six U.S. children, were projected to experience food insecurity in 2021. The USDA under Vilsack took swift action by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), providing $1 billion a month in additional SNAP benefits to 25 million of the lowest-income households. That adds up to approximately 15 percent more per month in SNAP benefits for households with children and elderly members, as well people with disabilities, and un- and underemployed adults. The agency continues to extend the benefits monthly, to states that request it, so long as the pandemic continues.

The USDA has also re-evaluated the Thrifty Food Plan—the basis for setting SNAP benefit levels—to accurately reflect the cost of a healthy diet. This resulted in increased purchasing power for SNAP recipients (by about 25 percent) for the first time since 1975. Furthermore, flexibilities provided to school meals programs have helped schools better adapt to supply chain issues and have made it easier to get food to kids and families who need it.

The department also responded to over 158,000 public comments and withdrew a rule from the preceding administration that would have created burdensome verification requirements and severely limited eligibility for SNAP for the people in greatest need.

“Vilsack is clearly tapping lived experience to inform a new and better way of operating at the USDA.”

6. Appoint People Who Can Rethink the System

Assessment: Strong performance

Vilsack is surrounding himself with people who are deeply knowledgeable and keenly aware of the need for transformative change. A few of those innovators include Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh (the first Black person and first woman of color in the role), General Counsel Janie Simms Hipp (a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation), departmental administration leader Oscar Gonzáles, Senior Advisor on Racial Equity Dewayne Goldmon, and Senior Nutrition Advisor Kumar Chandran. Vilsack is clearly tapping lived experience to inform a new and better way of operating at the USDA.

And he’s not stopping with internal staff appointments. New appointees to advisory committees such as the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board and the new Federal Advisory Committee on Urban Agriculture may also bring fresh frontline perspectives to the department.

7. Reform Farm Support Programs

Assessment: Mixed performance

Farm support and subsidy programs can create perverse incentives to keep farmers producing crops in ways and amounts that don’t make sense, and often pay most to the largest farms. But programs including the federal crop insurance program—with its 2020 price tag of nearly $8 billion, which can run much higher in years with more extreme weather events—have received few significant structural reforms in Vilsack’s first year. There have been some promising tweaks, such as investments in support of historically underserved producers and efforts to strengthen the links between crop insurance and climate adaptation and mitigation. However, these efforts fall short of the meaningful reforms needed, such as means testing, stringent payment limitations, and full-scale efforts to link the program to resilience. To be fair, the law gives the Secretary limited power to change these deeply flawed programs. But he can leverage his influence on Congress to use the 2023 Farm Bill as an opportunity to redesign them for the future.

8. Rebuild Scientific Capacity

Assessment: Mixed performance

Vilsack inherited two gutted science agencies. As a result of the previous administration’s abrupt and politically motivated relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri, these agencies lost 75 percent of their scientists. Vilsack must restore the USDA’s scientific integrity and capacity while regaining employee and public trust. Vilsack has been pragmatic, choosing to keep the agencies in Kansas City to promote stability. But he immediately reversed restrictive telework policies and replaced them with flexible policies to recruit and retain a strong and diverse workforce.

While Vilsack is using all mechanisms at his disposal to speed up hiring, he has not addressed the disproportionate loss of Black employees. According to the federal government’s personnel data, before the relocation almost 40 percent of NIFA’s workforce was Black. That figure has plummeted to 15 percent. Similarly, ERS lost over half of the agency’s Black employees between 2019 and 2020. Countering this shift should be one of the Secretary’s main priorities.

The department’s partnership with land grant universities offers a major recruitment pool to build a diverse, resilient USDA workforce. The USDA has recently made some much needed investments in those institutions, including investments in research capacity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities totaling over $21 million. Additionally, the department had planned to disseminate $4 billion of investments in historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions through the Build Back Better Act. If such provisions are passed by Congress, it would support modernizing research infrastructure and invest in the next generation of federally employed ag scientists.

9. End Exploitation of Workers

Assessment: Mixed performance

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The pandemic and climate-fueled weather extremes have laid bare the extent of worker exploitation inherent in our food and farm system in recent years. Tyson Foods—America’s largest meat processing company—became the poster child for worker abuse, and farmworkers are increasingly risking their lives due to increasingly warm temperatures and reoccurring air pollution and wildfire smoke.

The USDA has taken some concrete actions to support workers. Through the Farm and Food Worker Relief Grant Program and the Pandemic Response & Safety Grant Program, the department is providing millions of dollars to help protect workers from COVID-19 and to provide financial relief to frontline workers on the farms and in meatpacking plants. This is unprecedented. Historically, the USDA has never recognized farm laborers as stakeholders, but merely as inputs and costs for farmers and the industry to minimize.

In January 2021, the USDA withdrew a Trump-era proposal that would have further increased line speeds at meat processing plants, putting workers at increased risk of injury and COVID transmission. However, in November, the department announced a new pilot project that would allow faster line speeds at select pork plants, prioritizing industry profits over worker safety. The USDA has not shown a willingness to conduct a program-by-program review to identify and change discretionary rules and practices that disadvantage workers. Worker-led legislation such as the proposed Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act of 2021 would require the department to put an end to worker exploitation.

10. Prioritize Public Health During the Pandemic

Assessment: Slow start

Vilsack has emphasized the importance of universal access to healthy food, a concept known as nutrition security, but progress has been slow. One possible explanation is the pandemic-driven need to continue to prioritize fighting hunger and food insecurity. In March 2021, 14 percent of the American population experienced hunger, with children being particularly vulnerable. The USDA responded quickly to make school meals free to all students regardless of family income, reimbursing schools for free meals throughout the 2022 school year. The department also allowed flexible mealtimes and delivery of meals, essential as parents continue to balance work and caregiving responsibilities.

“The USDA has much more to do to promote nutrition security for all.”

As a result, hunger in the U.S. has been nearly halved since the start of the pandemic. As schools struggle with supply chain issues, the USDA has allowed greater flexibility for school meal programs, including waivers that enable schools to adapt meals if supply chain problems prevent them from meeting federal nutrition standards.

The USDA has much more to do to promote nutrition security for all. A recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that just 1 in 10 adults ate enough fruits and vegetables in 2019, with lower consumption rates for Black people and people living near or below the poverty line. Similarly, people aged 2 and older score an average of 59 out of 100 on the Healthy Eating Index, a measure of overall diet quality used to assess compliance with the USDA-HHS Dietary Guidelines. The USDA needs to better implement those guidelines throughout all the programs it funds.

The promotion of healthy diets must also entail ways of sustainably producing those diets, something that the Department of Agriculture—of all cabinet departments—should recognize. This must include more attention to the nation’s too-high levels of meat production and consumption, particularly as the climate crisis intensifies and many key environmental systems continue to break down. Vilsack has promised to transform the food system and has demonstrated flexibility and creativity. He now has the important opportunity to evolve beyond the rigid position he’s taken previously on the need to keep health and environment separate .

An Interim Report Card

Vilsack has framed some of his decisions as “transformational change,” and his actions this first year in office show that he is indeed working toward a new vision of the food and agriculture system. He is tasked with responding to stakeholders within commodity agriculture and agribusiness as well as good food proponents—and it remains to be seen what level of backlash these early efforts will inspire.

But at this point, it appears that at least some of his initiatives are on track to make nourishing food more available to all, expand business opportunities in local and regional food systems for a whole new class of entrepreneurs, bust monopolies, ignite rural economies, mitigate climate change, and reverse the USDA’s deplorably racist history by protecting workers and extending to all farmers the programs and financial assistance that it has historically lavished on white landowners and entrepreneurs. If so, it would indeed be transformational.

Ricardo Salvador is a senior scientist and director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Read more >

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    I'm happy to see some movement in the right direction. Vilsack was a worrying choice.

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