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Black History Beyond February: REE's Enduring Commitment to Communities of Color

Posted by Melvin Washington, Confidential Assistant, Research, Education and Economics Mission Area in Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
USDA Deputy Under Secretary Ann Bartuska (center) tours the Mandela Foods Cooperative run in West Oakland by Mandela Marketplace Inc., a non-profit organization that has used USDA funding to help develop the community-owned grocery store, as well as community farm stands and a food distribution program. Mandela MarketPlace's projects have brought 500,000 pounds of fresh produce into low-income West Oakland.
USDA Deputy Under Secretary Ann Bartuska (center) tours the Mandela Foods Cooperative run in West Oakland by Mandela Marketplace Inc., a non-profit organization that has used USDA funding to help develop the community-owned grocery store, as well as community farm stands and a food distribution program. Mandela MarketPlace's projects have brought 500,000 pounds of fresh produce into low-income West Oakland.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

In recognizing February as Black History Month, President Obama called officials to “…reflect on our progress…” and “recommit to advancing what has been left undone.” At USDA, this topical charge is simply how we do business all year. We can’t adequately expand economic opportunity through innovation, promote sustainable agricultural production, or protect our natural resources without recognizing our past and tackling the challenges of today. Our Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area’s engagement with the African-American community is not confined to a calendrical month; it is a thread in the institutional tapestry of broader dedication to service through agricultural research and education.

One example of this is the recently announced $9 million Community Food Projects grant program (CFP), designed to facilitate food self-reliance, infrastructure improvement, and meeting the food needs of low-income individuals and communities. While visiting California in February, REE Deputy Under Secretary Ann Bartuska visited the Mandela MarketPlace, a CFP awardee in predominately African-American West Oakland. The MarketPlace is a non-profit organization that has opened a food co-operative, a Healthy Neighborhood Store Alliance program, and a produce distribution center that supports small local family farmers, many of whom raise produce in community gardens. They tie together economic opportunity, health, and community assets in an area that traditionally has been a food desert.

Dr. Bartuska also witnessed minority producers’ involvement with USDA while during a February visit to the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff (UAPB). She visited a legendary African-American owned farm operation - Carpenter Farms, a family endeavor that is one of the largest employers in their rural community and a beneficiary of the USDA StrikeForce Initiative. StrikeForce helped the family obtain a contract with WalMart, and to finance purchase of a freezer truck that significantly lowered their operational costs. The Carpenters, whose success has seen them honored in the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, attribute their accomplishments in part to their participation in USDA programs.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of passage for the Second Morrill Act of 1890, which established historically black land-grant colleges and universities. These “1890s” have long been a catalyst of economic development and dissemination of advancements in agriculture for communities of color. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) recently announced $18 million in Capacity Building Grants designed to support this exact work. However, our commitment to these institutions and communities of color goes well beyond February; it’s an unending journey towards improving the lives of those who need it the most.

Category/Topic: Research and Science