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EO13985 USDA Equity Action Plan Frequently Asked Questions

What is Executive Order 13985? 

On Day 1 of this Administration, the President issued Executive Order (EO) 13985 which established that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all and creating opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved.

What has USDA done to support EO13985? 

In response, USDA took immediate action with a series of activities aimed to meaningfully listen to internal and external stakeholders, understand where barriers to accessing USDA programs and services exist, and assess data to identify opportunities to advance equity. Based on early lessons learned, USDA staff offices and mission areas were directed to coordinate and develop key actions to comprehensively incorporate equity into farm, family, and food programs that touch every American’s lifeincluding fortifying civil rights where improvements need to be made. The USDA Equity Action Plan details a subset of actions that USDA has chosen to highlight because of their potential high impact for underserved farmers and ranchers, families and children, and rural communities. 

Why does the USDA Equity Action Plan matter?

On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation establishing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Two and a half years later in his final message to Congress, President Lincoln called USDA “The People’s Department.” Today, USDA still strives to live up to this name and become a Department that truly serves all people. Unfortunately, since its inception, USDA has at times struggled to deliver its programs and services equitably. All too often programs have been designed to benefit those with land, experience, money, and education while leaving behind those without means, resources or privilege of one kind or another. Over the course of decades, congressional reports, internal data, civil rights investigations, court actions, and stakeholder testimony have documented this long history of inequity and discrimination against farmers from underserved groups, most often through institutional practices that administer credit and other farm support programs. 

Because of the flawed design of programs as well as individual acts of discrimination, over the course of decades, many underserved producers have lost equipment, land, farm operations, and opportunities to train future generations of diverse producers. In some cases, they lost their family home and valued links to their culture, history, community, and identity. These losses have been devastating. USDA is taking accountability by committing and taking aggressive actions to advance racial justice and equity.

What key actions will USDA take under this plan?

Below is a summary of high impact actions USDA will take to advance equity:

Partner with trusted technical assistance providers: Building on investments made in 2021, USDA will partner with trusted technical assistance providers to ensure that underserved producers have the additional support they need to access USDA programs. This includes improved assistance and capacity for business planning, market development, financial knowledge, and other technical skills involved in successful farm management.

Reduce barriers to USDA programs and improve support to underserved farmers, ranchers, and landowners: USDA will take steps to reduce administrative, economical, historical, and other barriers to program access.

Expand equitable access to USDA nutrition assistance programs: Building on actions taken in 2021 to address the unprecedented levels of food insecurity and diet-related associations with COVID-19 mortality as well as promote equityUSDA will further expand access to its nutrition assistance programs to ensure that those who qualify are able to participate, those who participate get benefits that are meaningful, and those who receive those benefits can use them conveniently and in ways that promote improvements in their health and well-being.

Increase USDA infrastructure investments that benefit underserved communities: USDA will make historic infrastructure investments and embed environmental justice as part of the mission. By directing programs to develop policies and activities that ensure USDA investments benefit underserved rural and Tribal communities, this will also help strengthen their ability to withstand the disproportionate effects of climate change.

Advance equity in federal procurement: USDA will assess and implement acquisition strategies to increase opportunities for small and disadvantaged businesses to fairly compete and access Federal contracts.

Uphold Federal Trust and Treaty Responsibilities to Indian Tribes: American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations are sovereign governments. USDA will take steps to remove barriers to access USDA programs, and expand Tribal self-determination policies, and incorporate indigenous values and perspectives in program design and delivery.

An unwavering commitment to civil rights: USDA will work to build civil rights offices with the tools, skills, capacity, and processes essential to effectively and efficiently enforce and uphold civil rights while also working to institutionalize civil rights and equity in how the organization operates.

USDA held a series of Tribal consultations in 2021; are any of the concerns shared being considered in USDA’s Equity Action Plan?

Over the years, USDA’s obligations and commitments have not been consistently implemented. Historic discriminatory practices as well as not honoring treaties has led to an erosion of trust with Tribal communities and inequitable program delivery. As part of the Equity Action Plan, USDA is making a strong commitment to reduce barriers faced by Tribal nations, expand Tribal self-determination, and incorporate indigenous values in our programs. This includes ensuring Tribal lands and Tribal-owned entities are eligible for USDA Programs, consistent enforcement of Tribal treaties and statutes, institutionalizing Tribal jurisdiction/sovereignty over Tribal lands, improving Tribal contracting, and working internally to improve representation in Tribal-facing positions.

What reforms will be implemented to strengthen USDA’s civil rights?

USDA will systematically assess and support civil rights staffing, training, and organizational capabilities to ensure that we are resolving long-standing pending administrative cases, rebuild trust, devise systems that ensure programmatic complaints are mitigated, and that processes, policies and regulations are effectively designed and translate into changes in programmatic delivery that result in equitable outcomes and compliance to civil rights. 

Over the years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Office of Inspector General (OIG) have issued reports and continue to monitor progress towards findings. USDA will continue to address those findings and recommendations and provide regular reporting.

If we have questions or need additional information, who do we contact?

For more information and updates regarding USDA’s overall equity actions and progress, visit www.usda.gov/equity. To speak with a USDA representative, visit https://ask.usda.gov/s/contactsupport. For media inquiries, contact press@usda.gov.

How is USDA planning to expand access to nutrition program?

USDA’s nutrition assistance programs touch the lives of one in four Americans each year and offer the most far-reaching, impactful tool available to ensure equitable access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food. To support health equity, USDA strives to ensure that those who qualify for our nutrition assistance programs can participate; those who participate get benefits that are meaningful; and those who receive those benefits can use them conveniently and in ways that promote improvements in their health and well-being. Still, some equity challenges persist. In fact, over 29 million adults and 12 million children struggled to afford food over the past year alone, while more than 1 in 5 Black and Latino adults and children reported food insecurity. Of USDA’s nutrition programs, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (WIC) participation rates have been in decline for more than 5 years. Currently, only percent of eligible individuals participate in the program. WIC plays an integral role in supporting nutrition security for millions of families. Most WIC participants are people of color, which makes WIC an important tool for addressing racial disparities in maternal and child health. For this reason, the Food and Nutrition Service will place a particular focus on reducing barriers to access and increasing participation in WIC.

How will USDA increase investments in underserved communities?

Underserved communities and populations are disproportionately impacted by the effects of economic and environmental shocks. As the world continues to experience the impacts of a pandemic and the devastating impacts of climate change, including drought, flooding, wildfire, and increased severity of storms, these communities are often on the front lines. Historic inequities have often left such communities and populations with low capacity to deal with these challenges. In fact, two-thirds of over 3,000 counties in the United States are rural and 310 of those rural communities have high and persistent levels of poverty. Rural communities are generally closer to land and water, making its residents, housing, businesses, and infrastructure more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Of the 310, 86 percent or 267 counties are rural and concentrated in persistently poor areas of the Delta Region, Appalachia, the Southern Border Region or Colonias, Puerto Rico and other insular areas, and on Native American lands. The majority (60 percent) of people living in persistent poverty counties are people of color. Since investments have historically lagged in these areas, their already vulnerable position is made worse by the inadequate and affordable access to reliable infrastructure, public services, and community economic development opportunities.

In keeping with USDA’s commitment to climate and environmental justice, the Department will drive strategic investments by implementing the Justice40 Initiative to support increased resilience for underserved communities and populations. In addition to directing benefits to underserved communities through the Justice40 Initiative, the historic funding available through the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act to USDA will offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity for significant investment to drive benefits to underserved communities and populations. Equity and environmental justice are fully integrated in the planning of existing programs. USDA is committed to ensuring that the new infrastructure funding is equitably invested in places with the greatest need.   

How is USDA assisting small, disadvantaged businesses?

USDA is one of the largest departments in the Federal Government both in workforce and programs. If the spending of those dollars is carefully considered, we have the potential to make tremendous impact in the recovery of our small businesses from the impacts of the pandemic while improving our contract outcomes. Its ability to buy goods and services to deliver its mission can also increase opportunities for small and disadvantaged businesses and support closing the wealth gap in underserved communities. In support of implementing existing authorities and new infrastructure funding and in alignment with the Federal goal of expanding fair competition and equitable opportunities for small and disadvantaged businessespart of USDA’s Equity Action Plan is to work with procurement offices to expand outreach, strategic acquisition planning, and meet annual goals. By doing so, USDA will support small business growth and build generational wealth throughout the United States, including for firms owned by underrepresented individuals.

Why is partnering with trusted technical assistance providers important as part of USDA’s Equity Action Plan?

While USDA’s expansive presence in rural communities is one of its greatest strengths, it is increasingly clear that the decentralized, local nature of information sharing and decision-making can be problematic, especially for underserved communities and non-traditional customers. Agriculture is a complex industry with significant up-front costs including land, seed, labor, fertilizer, and other inputs. In addition to assistance accessing affordable capital, producers often need assistance with business plan development, tax planning, or simply navigating the complexity of the financial institutions from which they are seeking to secure credit, be that with USDA or elsewhere. These challenges are compounded in rural communities of persistent poverty where race and place combined have resulted in structural exclusion from financial systems and other ladders of opportunity. Unable to access private capital, a producer may turn to USDA for assistance. 

However, while USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) can provide access to capital, FSA has very few staff and few programs that help with business planning or financial management. USDA’s farm loan program staff can help a producer secure a loan, but this requires a producer to have an existing business plan and the ability to use a balance sheet to demonstrate appropriate cash flow. As part of its commitment to rebuild trust and better serve these communities, USDA has pursued cooperative agreements with trusted stakeholder organizations rooted in their local communities that are focused on improving business planning and financial management services to underserved producers. Through these partnerships, USDA will commit to provide technical assistance that ensures producers have essential knowledge, tools, support, and information.

What administrative barriers will be reduced by USDA’s Equity Action Plan to support underserved producers?

Many small farms struggle without a meaningful safety net and it is even more challenging for underserved producers who have experienced discrimination and had limited access to available USDA programs. In addition to working closely with partner organizations focused on improving outreach to underserved producers, USDA will take steps to reduce administrative barriers to program access.

Translation & Plain Language: USDA will strengthen its translation services by ensuring Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Plans for farm programs and improving availability of LEP hotlines. USDA will also emphasize the use of plain language so that its communications are easier to understand. Moreover, staff will be trained on various tools and policies related to language translation, reasonable accommodations, cultural sensitivity, and civil rights.

Customer Experience Initiative to Improve Application Process: USDA will work to design and implement a simplified direct farm loan application process, along with an online application option, to improve historically underserved producers’ access to capital through USDA programs.

Urban Agriculture: USDA will create targeted programs, offices, and resources to better serve urban and suburban agricultural producersincluding creative support to those taking actions in their communities, growing not only fresh, healthy produce, but also providing jobs and offering access to fresh, healthy food in areas where grocery stores are sparse. Historically, the lack of USDA offices and presence in urban and suburban areas have been barriers to access, as has the absence of USDA farm programs that are aligned with the needs of urban and suburban agricultural producers.

Heirs Property Relending Program: USDA will continue to implement the Heirs’ Property Relending Program that establishes loan funds to eligible lenders to assist landowners to resolve ownership and succession on farmland with multiple owners.  

Highly Fractionated Indian Land Loan Program: USDA will also implement the Highly Fractionated Indian Land Loan Program with an evaluation of regulatory and procedural changes to ensure alignment with the new Heirs’ Property Relending Program. This will ensure that title issues on land in Indian Country are addressed concurrent to USDA’s efforts to address heirs’ property issues.

Will this USDA Equity Action Plan also address internal workforce issues such as diversity and training? 

Recognizing the role of a healthy and inclusive organizational culture and the need to build an organization that reflects the communities that an agency serves, USDA is looking inward to understand what it will take to build an organization that centers diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in all that it does. Immediate actions include the creation of a DEIA strategic plan and hiring a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. These two specific actions are not discussed in the USDA Equity Action Plan but will be detailed in a separate and subsequent DEIA strategy.

How will USDA take into account the Equity Commission’s recommendations if there’s already an established USDA Equity Action Plan?

USDA is establishing an Equity Commission comprised of external stakeholders. Commission Members will conduct a thorough review of USDA policies and programs and provide the Secretary with a set of recommendations for how the Department can take action to advance equity. The Equity Commission and its Subcommittee for Agriculture will provide an initial set of recommendations in late 2022. Additional recommendations from the Commission’s rural development subcommittee and any other subcommittees will be provided no later than 2023. In the meantime, USDA is prepared and committed to delivering on the actions specified in the Equity Action Plan while awaiting for the Equity Commission’s final recommendations. This will allow USDA  to provide urgent assistance and intervention and leverage programs’ and agencies’ existing authorities and discretion to advance equitable changes.

Why is the debt relief not included in USDA’s Equity Action Plan?

The full implementation of the debt relief provision in Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is central to USDA’s strategy for advancing equity among a subset of historically underserved agricultural producers.  This provision provided USDA with approximately $5 billion to provide loan payments to USDA direct and guaranteed loan borrowers from socially disadvantaged groups. While this program is currently on hold due to several court-ordered national preliminary injunctions, the USDA, the Department of Justice, and the Biden-Harris Administration will continue to vigorously defend the program in federal court.

If EO13985 is a whole-of-Government approach to equity, how is USDA partnering with other Federal agencies on rural and Tribal issues?

As a lead advocate for rural communities within the Federal family, USDA has worked closely with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to educate colleagues across the Federal Government about the unique experiences and needs of rural and Tribal communities, why persistent poverty is predominant in these areas, and how attention to the details of both policy design and implementation can ensure rural and Tribal communities have equitable access to Federal programs and services. Through ongoing support and implementation of EO13985, USDA will continue to partner with other agencies to ensure the unique needs of rural and Tribal communities remain considered as Federal programs are designed, prioritized, and administered. 

How is the USDA Equity Action Plan going to address systemic discrimination?

USDA has a long history of discriminating against many marginalized groups including Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ people, women, people with disabilities, and immigrants. From systemic discrimination in program design to a failure to properly investigate and resolve complaints of discrimination in its programs, numerous internal and external reports have documented fundamental failures to protect the civil rights of USDA customers. Due in part to these failures, thousands of minority farmers filed various class action lawsuits under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and USDA’s Office of Civil Rights has been challenged to maintain trust among both internal and external stakeholders.

Under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership during the Obama Administration, USDA acknowledged this history and took steps to chart a new era for civil rights at the Department. As an initial step toward reckoning with the past, USDA worked with Congress and the Department of Justice to settle the In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation (Pigford 2) and Keepseagle class actions, to provide a voluntary claims settlement program for farmers and ranchers in the Garcia and Love cases, and to make available over $2 billion for cash relief, tax relief, debt relief, and capacity building programs for claimants. While there was progress towards making civil rights foundational to USDA policies, programs, and culture, much of this has been undermined over the past 5 years through budget cuts, arbitrary reorganizations of the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) and Mission Area offices that diminished the capacity to perform core civil rights functions, and executive actions that banned diversity training and special emphasis programs. 

The Biden-Harris Administration, Secretary Vilsack, and Deputy Secretary Bronaugh have made upholding civil and constitutional rights a top priority and foundational to the USDA equity agenda, ensuring that all USDA applicants, customers, employees, and stakeholders are provided fair access to all opportunities, programs, and services a top priority and foundational to the USDA equity agenda. This commitment includes promoting, upholding, and enforcing civil rights in an effective, efficient manner and institutionalizing civil rights as part of USDA’s culture and norms. This commitment will also be mirrored and included in the upcoming DEIA plan as USDA acknowledges the criticality of supporting and ensuring civil rights for all, including our internal customers. 

In developing the USDA Equity Action Plan, did USDA consider stakeholder input?  If so, how?

Yes. First, USDA spent months assessing and identifying challenges and opportunities through data and stakeholder engagement. Based on early lessons learned, USDA convened leaders across USDA components to discuss systems, practices, and mindsets that hinder progress and activate a planning process to strengthen accountability and ensure sustained change. Then, staff offices and mission areas were directed to develop their respective equity action plans resulting in 18 equity action plans with over 100 actions. The USDA Equity Action Plan only includes a subset of high-impact actions USDA will take to advance equity.

How will stakeholders and the public stay informed on progress of the actions laid out in the plan?

Over the course of the Biden-Harris Administration and beyond, USDA will develop and share with our customers and stakeholders our progress in advancing equity. It is critical that we continue to rewrite our narrative, remain steadfast in our public commitment, and advance progress and change towards a more fair and equitable organization that will contribute to the overall efforts of building a Government that is trusted by those we serve. Our forward progress will be documented via an annual accomplishment report that will reflect incremental outcomes of this plan and other equity-related efforts. This annual report will be made available via www.usda.gov/equity and amplified through stakeholder engagements with partners and customers in the field and nationally. 

In addition to USDA’s Equity Action Plans, what are USDA’s early accomplishments in advancing equity and investments in underserved communities?

Equitable Access to Nutrition Programs: Food Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNCS) bolstered access to SNAP by providing $1.135 billion to expand and enhance the States’ SNAP administration and improve services to vulnerable populations; Increased benefits for WIC recipients by providing $900 million to implement a temporary increase in fruit and vegetable vouchers to $35 per month. USDA also proposed a regulatory priority to remove regulatory barriers in WIC’s online ordering and expand access for various types of online capable stores to participate. USDA also increased the Pandemic-EBT food assistance benefit by approximately 15 percent, providing more money for low-income families and millions of children missing meals due to school closures. USDA also expanded eligibility for homeless young adults under the age of 25 to be able to receive meals at emergency shelters participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

Support to Underserved Producers: The Farm Service Agency (FSA) made available $67 million through its new Heirs’ Property Relending Program. Heirs’ property and other land tenure issues have long been substantial barriers preventing access to USDA programs for many producers and landowners, and this relending program provides access to capital to help producers find a resolution. The program’s benefits go far beyond its participantsit will also keep farmland in farming, protect family farm legacies, and support economic viability. USDA also announced approximately $16.6 million in funding to community-based and nonprofit organizations, institutions of higher education, and Tribal entities that help underserved and veteran farmers and ranchers own and operate successful farms. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) invested $50 million in partnerships to improve equity in conservation programs, and USDA has invested $75 million in 5-year technical assistance partnerships with cooperators that work with underserved farmers and ranchers.

Support to Underserved Communities: USDA Rural Housing Service’s Single-Family Housing Direct and Guaranteed loans (SFHDLP and SFHGLP) extended the eviction and foreclosure moratorium to struggling multifamily housing residents. Totaling 218 projects, Rural Business Service also made $86 million investment to improve equitable access to jobs, business opportunities, housing, and health care for people who live and work in rural communities through six programs such as Delta Health Care Grant and Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant programs.

Partnerships with Minority Serving Institutions (MSI): The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Marketing & Regulatory Program (MRP), Trade & Foreign Agriculture Affairs (TFAA), Research, Education, and Economics (REE), and Office of Partnerships & Public Engagement (OPPE) made investments to various MSIs to build programs that (1) enable minority students to have access to curriculum, internships, and training that expand career opportunities in USDA-related fields; and (2) leverage MSIs’ ability to provide technical assistance to assist underserved and veteran farmers to own and operate successful farms. For example, REE invested over $21.8 million to support research, to build capacity for teaching, research, and extension activities, and diverse student recruitment.

Improve Nation-to-Nation Relationship with Tribal Governments: USDA restored the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR) and held an all-of-USDA Tribal consultation in March 2021. USDA also restored the protections to the 9.3 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest, returning stability and certainty to the conservation of the world’s largest intact temperate old-growth rainforest. The USDA will also work with Tribes and Alaska Native corporations in the area to develop sustainable opportunities for economic growth. For example, Rural Utilities Service (RUS) obligated a $235 million loan to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to improve electric service to the Navajo and Hopi Tribes and deploy fiber-based smart grid infrastructure. RUS also implemented a no-match grant requirement for federally recognized Tribes and other underserved communities. By doing so, it enabled low-capacity grantees to have a fair shot at accessing financing. For a comprehensive list of USDA’s early accomplishments, visit www.usda.gov/equity.