The need for food assistance has spiked during the pandemic. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)
WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday laid out USDA’s goals to expand food insecurity and nutrition programs in the president’s budget request, as well as the agency’s focus on programs to address longtime racial discrimination.
“Normally I would talk to you all about numbers in the budget,” Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, told members of the House Appropriations panel on agriculture spending. “But these are not normal times and this is certainly not a normal budget hearing.”
The USDA secretary said President Joe Biden’s budget proposal aims to address climate change in agriculture and root out systemic barriers in the agency that have led to discrimination against Black farmers.
The first agriculture budget of the Biden administration also acknowledges the importance of economically weathering the pandemic, and it attempts to improve nutrition for both children and adults, Vilsack said.
“I think it’s important to put this discretionary budget in the context of all the other actions that are currently taking place and have taken place in relationship to the American Rescue Plan, (and) in relationship to the American Jobs Plan that is pending,” he said, referring to the recently enacted pandemic relief package and a $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs proposal by the administration.
Biden released his fiscal 2022 budget request to Congress last week, and proposed $27.8 billion for USDA, an increase of 16% — $3.8 billion — from the previous fiscal year. Many other domestic programs also received substantial increases under the Biden request.
The USDA funding would expand rural broadband access and invest in climate change measures such as preparing and mitigating wildfires. It also would provide nearly $7 billion for nutritional programs for low-income Americans, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC.
“This is our moment to solve big challenges by acting boldly — to close the broadband gap facing rural America; to work with farmers, ranchers and producers to transform our nation’s food system and build new markets here and abroad; to protect and manage our nation’s forests and grasslands from catastrophic wildfires; and to ensure Americans have access to healthy and nutritious food,” Vilsack said in a statement.
Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Georgia Democrat and chair of the Agriculture, Rural Development and FDA Subcommittee, raised concerns about food insecurity, which has been exacerbated due to the pandemic.
In 2019, more than 35 million people were experiencing food insecurity, but that number jumped to 42 million during the pandemic, according to Feeding America, which is a network of food banks across the U.S.
There are also significant racial disparities in food insecurity — 1 in 5 Black individuals experience it compared to 1 in 9 white individuals who do, Feeding America says.
“Swift actions are desperately needed to lift rural America out of the pandemic, especially on small farms and food insecure populations,” Bishop said.
The chair of the full Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., also agreed.
Vilsack said the American Rescue Plan gave USDA $3.5 billion in funding to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by $100 per family. He added that the preliminary Biden administration budget for the agency also fully funds WIC and would expand school breakfast and lunch programs to make sure children have access to nutritional food.
“This budget also reflects the desire to do so for communities that have been dealing with persistent poverty for far too long,” Vilsack said, adding that he is looking forward to the agency relaunching the “Strike Force” program implemented in the Obama administration.
The program provided $23.8 billion for 380 counties where poverty was persistent for more than 30 years.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said his main concern was a proposal by the Biden administration that Congress amend the tax code, arguing that it would be harmful to multi-generational farmers who want to pass their land down if those farmers would be hit with an inheritance tax. The Biden administration is proposing to amend the tax code to raise corporate taxes to 28%.
“I don’t think at the end of the day (this tax code) is going to result in the destruction of the ability to pass on a farm,” Vilsack said. “I think there are tools in that tax code that will allow most farms to be transferred without difficulty.”
The ranking member of the agriculture subcommittee, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said he hopes USDA focuses on expanding broadband, as online services such as distance learning and telehealth services have become vital during the pandemic.
“This pandemic has given rise to a digital leap,” he said. “This truly is a transformative moment if we can properly seize it.”
Vilsack agreed and said the president’s budget will continue to work to bring broadband to rural areas.
Vilsack is the first Cabinet secretary to appear before a House appropriations panel this year.
He previously appeared before the House Agriculture Committee in late March to testify about the systemic racism and discrimination that Black farmers have experienced from USDA.
During that hearing, Vilsack said just 0.1% of Black farmers received some of the $26 billion in economic relief provided to farmers through a USDA program set up by the Trump administration to help farmers hit by the pandemic. Only $20.8 million went to Black farmers, Vilsack said.
Prior to his confirmation by the Senate, Black farmers raised concerns about his nomination to again lead USDA, arguing that during his time at the agency under the Obama administration, complaints of discrimination by Black farmers went unheard and land loss for Black farmers continued.
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