In an interview with The Washington Post, Vilsack for the first time noted the extent to which the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated existing disparities across the American economy.
The distribution of coronavirus relief increased those gaps, he said.
“We saw 99 percent of the money going to White farmers and 1 percent going to socially disadvantaged farmers and if you break that down to how much went to Black farmers, it’s 0.1 percent,” he said. “Look at it another way: The top 10 percent of farmers in the country received 60 percent of the value of the covid payments. And the bottom 10 percent received 0.26 percent.”
Of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States today, only 45,000 — 1.3 percent — are Black, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down from 1 million a century ago, because of widespread land loss.
Vilsack said the Biden administration would be focused on closing those inequalities. The USDA will battle three systemic problems concurrently, he said: a broken farm system, food insecurity and a health-care crisis.
After eight years as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, Vilsack returns to the USDA at a time of rising food insecurity because of the pandemic.
With high unemployment and American food banks and pantries around the country running low, Vilsack is charged with expanding and reimagining food assistance programs, which account for over two-thirds of USDA’s budget. SNAP (the food assistance program commonly called food stamps), WIC (a program for pregnant women, infants and young children), Pandemic-EBT, (a program meant to replace free or subsidized meals for kids now learning online) and school meal programs are all on the table.
During his previous term, critics say he failed to address long-standing complaints of discrimination against Black farmers in access to USDA loans and other programs.
After months of national debate about systemic racism and reparations for slavery and segregation, Vilsack says he will make rooting out racism at the agency, and in agriculture, a priority. The American Rescue Plan will pay $5 billion to farmers of color, who have lost 90 percent of their land over the past century because of systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
When you started in January 2009 as agriculture secretary, what was the top priority and how is it different now?
In January, 2009 the top priority was to be part of the Obama-Biden administration’s efforts to turn the economy around and to make sure the USDA utilized its vast array of programs.
This time is significantly different. We’re obviously facing a health and economic crisis. There are three systemic things we need to deal with all at the same time.
No. 1 is that on roughly 90 percent of farms today the majority of income isn’t generated by the farmer. That suggests to me a need to transform our food and agriculture system. No 2 is the fact that we have 43 million Americans in need of nutrition assistance, and we have the health-care issues that currently have 60 percent of the adult population with one chronic disease, 40 percent with two chronic diseases and 70-plus percent of adults overweight and obese. And we’ve got children who are headed toward that type of future. This suggests the need for a transformed food and agriculture system.
The fact that both on the health care and economic side, socially disadvantaged folks fare worse than the overall general population suggests there needs to be a focus on closing the gap between those who have and those who do not.
How do you create more access to nutritious, healthy food and how do you make sure the programs you are utilizing don’t exacerbate the gap but actually begin to close it?
Why is the $5 billion for socially disadvantaged farmers in this rescue plan?
Two reasons. One, you’ve got this systemic racism that basically put these people behind and they’ve never caught up. This is beginning of addressing that issue. And second is the gap in the way the covid relief was distributed.
Black farmers I’ve talked to have focused on the urgency of getting that debt relief. What’s the time frame for having Black farmers’ debt forgiven?
It’s more complicated that most people realize. You have to identify which loans are guaranteed with a prepaid penalty and you have to document that penalty and see how that’s going to be handled.
The point of this isn’t to suggest we’re going to delay, but that we need to think about this, and to be careful in how we proceed to make sure we’re not creating any more problems for these folks than we have already. And there needs to be assistance and outreach to let people know that they are entitled to this relief and how to take full advantage of it.
WIC is undersubscribed. How can we get the people who qualify for WIC to apply for that benefit and are the online options for these benefits likely to go permanent post-pandemic?
WIC is a situation where 50 percent of the people who qualify aren’t using it — Why is that? I don’t know if I know the answer to that.
How do we make sure that everyone who qualifies for the program is getting the program? What do we need to do to enhance participation? I think governors and people who are leaders in their states and communities have a responsibility of notifying and lifting up the availability of these programs in a way that’s meaningful.
During covid-19, we’ve increased the benefit and it’s been well-received. The question is, is this something that ought to be permanently extended. And the benefits need to be conveniently used. We need to recognize what’s happened as a result of covid — it’s not just the workplace that’s changed attitudes about where we work and how we work, but it’s also attitudes about how we make sure people who get benefits can use them in the most convenient and effective way.
How you ask and answer that question may very well result in a redesign, expansion or modification to the existing program that provides more convenient use, especially for those who find themselves without access to a grocery store or transportation.
With the money provided in the American Rescue Plan, the goal is to look at outreach and innovation. The team is going to be tasked with establishing a framework of meaningful benefits, convenient benefits that are accessible, and finally, that as it’s being used, that nutritious options are being encouraged, and that people have the knowledge they need to make healthy choices.
Given American obesity rates, is there any chance that the USDA would reevaluate having a more limited array of food options with SNAP?
By limiting what you can buy with SNAP, you don’t necessarily increase healthier choices because SNAP isn’t the be-all-end-all at the grocery store. Recipients are also spending their own money. What are they doing with the money they spend on top of SNAP? If you restrict what people buy with SNAP, they simply shift and buy whatever they are going to buy with their own cash.
It seems to me a more effective way is to [incentivize] what they buy, to be conscious of the fact that “if I buy this product, my dollar is going to be stretched further.” The second piece of this is making sure we do a better job with SNAP education. SNAP education isn’t just about, “Hey, here’s a program and how to use it.” It’s about, “you’ve got choices that you need to make for your family, here’s some information and I encourage you to make the right choice.”
The third aspect of this is that you don’t want to stigmatize people. The whole point of the SNAP card and online EBT purchasing is really to avoid the stigma that could potentially be associated with being in line and having someone judge you. The key here is to create incentives, provide information and trust people to make the right choices for their families. We need to look for ways to celebrate healthy choices, and we need to have people of some celebrity continuing to reinforce this message.
Are we likely to see the universal free lunch of the pandemic go permanent and the Michelle Obama-era stricter nutritional guidelines for school lunches reinstated?
I think it’s important to follow the science — including nutrition science. Nutrition science says we basically need to improve school meals. We need to work with our school nutrition association friends and those responsible for administering school meals and say look, we’re obviously helping to pay for the cost of these meals, it’s a partnership to make sure kids are well-fed. There are waivers now because of supply chain disruptions because of covid, but once we get on the other side of covid, I don’t see why we shouldn’t follow the science.
We spend $160 billion for Medicaid and Medicare on diabetes treatment alone. If we could halve that, how about you give me a few billion from that $80 billion you’re going to save to improve the quality of school meals, so at the end of the day we have fewer people who are diabetic? Literally, it’s not rocket science.
To me, if we’re really truly going to embrace what we’ve learned from covid, as other previous generations of Americans have embraced great crises and created opportunity out of those great crises, what we need to understand is the healthier we are going into a crisis like this, the more of us will avoid illness and avoid death.
It’s in our collective best interest to figure out ways in which we can improve the food and agriculture system in this country so that it’s fair for everybody, so that people can make a decent living and that we have access to healthy food.