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Yvonne Lee: Acknowledging Asian American Impact and Influence on the U.S. Agriculture Industry as a Policy Design Expert

Posted by Cecilia Hernandez, Designated Federal Officer, USDA Equity Commission in Equity Initiatives
May 30, 2023
Yvonne Lee

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month and serves as an important opportunity to celebrate our AAPI communities and honor their many contributions to the United States. The AAPI community has influenced American culture in so many ways. One example is in the agricultural sector.

“Dating back to the 1880s, Asian American farmers have contributed two-thirds of California’s produce. Asian American growers introduced asparagus, celery, strawberries, sugar, and beans, to the American palate,” explained USDA Equity Commission Member Yvonne Lee. “When we examine how we want to advance social and economic justice for underrepresented communities and families, we must consider local food systems and how they were shaped. Discriminatory laws dissipated much of Asian American businesses and producers’ work in the agriculture industry.”

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was a major contributor to the decline of Asian American participation in farming as it often extended to people of Asian-descendent and specifically prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. The Act was a gateway to additional discriminatory and exclusionary laws such as the Alien Land Laws which banned Asian Americans from owning land.

As a member of the USDA Equity Commission, Lee is part of a Commission tasked with providing recommendations to USDA that will improve the Department’s service to its diverse stakeholders. Lee says she is proud to work on the final report that represents those stakeholders’ voices: “The Commission did not shy away from acknowledging past systemic discrimination and racism that’s faced by underserved and underrepresented communities,” said Lee. “Based on our individual experiences, these recommendations were made to reflect different perspectives and voices of the communities in which we belong to. The final report will be for [the underrepresented and underserved communities] and by them, and it is up to all of us to make sure that it’s implemented.”

Lee relies on her past experiences to help shape the policy recommendations she brings to her colleagues on the Equity Commission. She speaks fondly of her childhood noting her grand aunt’s migration from China to a small farm town in California with her husband in 1930. “In this farm town, my grand aunt-learned how to drive a truck, peddled the family farms’ goods across the town every day, and eventually opened the largest supermarket in town,” Lee said. “This market was opened as a result of frustration with purchasers who would only give her a fraction of the payment that they would give to other farmers in town due to her ethnicity. A few years later, my grand aunt opened her own bank due to major banks unwillingness to lend to her and other minority farmers and farmworkers which hindered their ability to build and maintain a farm.”

Lee believes that stories like her grand aunt’s underscore the important work the Equity Commission is undertaking to root out systemic inequities at the Department. Lee believes that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will take the Commission’s recommendations seriously. She noted that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has acknowledged the members’ expertise, time, and commitment to their task as he works with USDA’s Mission Areas to evaluate how the Department will institutionalize the strategies presented in the Equity Commission’s Interim Report. The Equity Commission’s Interim Report is available in both English (PDF, 1.2 MB) and Spanish (PDF, 1.3 MB). The Final Report will be released in Fiscal Year 2024.

“What this [Equity] Commission aims to do is to make sure that the interconnected social, economic, and racial, experience of all the different communities is bound together as a collective moving forward to ensure that our recommendations are implemented correctly and that we speak as one voice and advance equity as one body,” said Lee.

Category/Topic: Equity Initiatives
Tags: equity USDA