The Senate Agriculture Committee voted on Tuesday to approve Tom Vilsack’s nomination as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary. Vilsack testified remotely before the committee and was questioned about climate change, biofuels and racial inequities reported desmoinesregister.com. Former Iowa Governor Vilsack lead the USDA from 2009 to 2017, but failed to reverse decades of institutional racism against Black farmers.
When Vilsack lead USDA, it was called “the last plantation”. The agency faced numerous discrimination claims involving Black, Hispanic, Indian and females farmers. Black farm groups criticized Vilsack for doing too little to eliminate discrimination against Black farmers. Vilsack garnered even more criticism from Black Farm Groups with his firing of Shirley Sherrod, the Black Georgia state Director for Rural Development.
Vilsack’s nomination now moves to the entire Senate for confirmation. He will be expected to address the uneven recovery in agriculture as small rural and Black farmers are hurting because of closures from the COVID-19 pandemic and consumers shifting spending from dining out to food box.
A December 2020 article in civileats.com reported USDA’s Federal food box program dropped Black farmers and have not been renewed for 20 nonprofit organizations, churches, and community groups across Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. In Laurel, Miss., a population of 18,000, 60 percent are Black. “One-third of residents live under the poverty line” and are dependent on food boxes, said Lula Cooley a Laurel resident.
Instead of prioritizing small rural and Black farmers for programs and contracts, the USDA awarded new contracts to large suppliers “leaving Black farmers and growers in the rural South that are hard-hit by the COVID pandemic with unsold crops” and “diminished access to produce”. Rollcall.com reports USDA have halted $2.3 billion in COVID-19 payments approved by Sonny Perdue, saying the payments are under review.