By: Stephanie Lip, ASU Food Systems graduate student
During our weeklong DC Immersive, several of our meetings took place in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) building. On one particular day, we had the privilege of meeting with the team from the Marketing and Regulatory Program (MRP) in the USDA conference room where people from all over the world come to discuss matters with policy officials within the Department.
The timing of our visit was special because the Equity Commission had just met a day earlier to look inward and discuss changes needed to be made within USDA to ensure equity is put into action throughout the four-pillar strategic approach set forth by the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The Equity Commission is a 15-member independent commission of agriculture industry members, experts, and advocates, including those that serve or advocate for underserved communities, minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, rural communities, and LGBTQI+ communities.
We gathered around the massive oval conference table with USDA staff, including Deputy Under Secretary Mae Wu, Under Secretary Jenny Moffitt, and Deputy Administrator for Transportation and Marketing Tricia Kovacs. Deputy Under Secretary Wu’s work in environmental health policy, particularly in water, pesticides, and animal agriculture, led her to her USDA role of one and a half years. Deputy Administrator Kovacs’ work in the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) involves the oversight of the transportation, research, and development group which looks at the supply chain and all the different modes of transportation that American agriculture products need to take to get to markets. She also manages local and regional food systems research and development groups which work on research cooperative agreements and the more well-known AMS grant programs. Under Secretary Jenny Moffitt shared her passion for soil health, which transitioned her from an organic walnut farmer into the leader of California’s Healthy Soils Initiative. Her experience on her family farm gave her first- hand experiences in regulatory compliance and implementing climate-smart practices, which ultimately led her to USDA.
Throughout the week we heard from USDA staff who consistently shared the four pillars of top priority for USDA: (1) Meaningful Support: Providing nutrition support throughout all stages of life, (2) Healthy Food: Connecting all Americans with healthy, safe, affordable food sources, (3) Collaborative Action: Developing, translating, and enacting nutrition science through partnership, and (4) Equitable Systems: Prioritizing equity every step of the way.
Looking at each pillar through an equity lens was at the forefront of the discussions around the current work of the MRP team. Under Secretary Moffitt talked about the USDA’s prioritization of climate-smart agriculture through a $1 billion investment. The request for proposals garnered over 400 responses from the agriculture and forestry sectors and hoped to gain responses for “how to innovate climate-smart ag and forestry in a way that is voluntary, manageable and producer-driven, that builds more income and more opportunity.” The USDA is making sure they are “walking the talk” and diving into analyzing procurement opportunities and seeking out “more and better markets.” With an opportunity to put equity into action, Deputy Under Secretary Wu discussed the team’s work on creating more access and markets for procurement to take place from farms and producers of all sizes, backgrounds, and regions. She talked about how the food system is shaped like a constricted hourglass figure and is heavily concentrated on aggregating and processing. “We're looking to find ways to expand the middle of the supply chain; to build in redundancies and resilience so that one little shot or fire outbreak to one processing plant won’t knock out a quarter of our supply,” she said. Grants within MRP help build capacity of local communities and help independent processors build up in local and regional areas, diversifying and expanding the supply chain.
The collaboration between the USDA programs to work more effectively and inclusively towards achieving the four pillars is witnessed through the progress discussed at this meeting. The team echoed that the USDA is “a great place to work” and that more people are needed - people “who are sincere, who come to work excited every day and excited about the mission, who feel valued in their work.” It was an inspirational pitch to us all who are aspiring to build a more resilient and just food system.
This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.