Deputy Secretary of USDA: A leader for today and the future

By: Allison Perkins, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

It was an honor for our graduate cohort to meet with Deputy Secretary of USDA, Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, during our DC Immersive trip. As a graduate student of Sustainable Food Systems, I was inspired by Dr. Bronaugh’s intersectional work which I can learn from to enhance impact across my academic, professional, and personal life. Deputy Secretary Bronaugh spoke as both a leader and compassionate individual aligned with our cohort’s mission to drive sustainable food systems. Bronaugh created space for an open dialogue to discuss our backgrounds and experiences as we learned from her wealth of knowledge in agricultural policy. The meeting was unique, and it was quickly evident that being Deputy Secretary of USDA is not just a job for Dr. Bronaugh but a role she takes responsibility for and accomplishes with grace.

Originally from Petersburg, Virginia, Deputy Secretary Bronaugh received her PhD in Career and Technical Education from Virginia Tech and has been involved in the agricultural world for many years. Her experiences range from being the Associate Administrator for Extension Programs, a 4-H Extension Specialist, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University, Virginia State Executive Director for the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), and the appointed 16th Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 2018. Each of these experiences have molded her perspectives and guided her along her career path to become the Deputy Secretary of USDA. Virginia Tech showed her the importance of sustainable agriculture and the value of urban agriculture, while FSA gave her special insight into the commodity side of agriculture. In 2019, Deputy Secretary Bronaugh was responsible for starting the Virginia Farmer Stress Task Force. While she reflected on this, she emphasized to our cohort that to become changemakers in our food system, we must understand the daily stress that farmers endure and the toll it takes on their mental health.

In her efforts to continue supporting farmers, she is currently focusing on identifying gaps within the US food system that contribute to mental health challenges for farmers and improving the accessibility of available resources. She is also very passionate about racial justice and equity which is exemplified through her commitment to reducing discriminatory practices throughout the food system. As co-chair of the USDA Equity Commission, Deputy Secretary Bronaugh is focusing on building trust within the USDA by addressing discrimination challenges and strengthening accountability. She has enlisted committee and sub-committee members who appropriately represent farmers, ranchers, and underserved communities such as minorities, women, people with disabilities, rural communities, and LGBTQI+ communities. The Commission was newly formed this year and held its first public meeting in February. They plan to hold four public meetings throughout the year to continue their efforts in strengthening equity and inclusion within the programs, services, and decisions of the USDA.

Two other examples of how Deputy Secretary Bronaugh is striving to achieve an increase in equity is through equity action plans and including equity into employee work plans. Through these plans, better access will be available to help those who previously have not been given priority and were treated unfairly. As these issues have not been successfully addressed in the past, it is her mission to ensure no one is excluded and to expand access of resources to minority groups.

Dr. Bronaugh does not work for herself, but rather for the people she serves. Further, she aims to mentor future generations to continue building a resilient and just food system in the US.  She advances youth leadership in agriculture through hosting meetings like ours to share her work, communicate job opportunities, and explain the culture of work at USDA. To top off our wonderful experience with the Deputy Secretary, our cohort was fortunate enough to be showcased on her twitter account. Dr. Bronaugh described our meeting by saying: “This cohort of NextGen leaders from ASU included students with backgrounds in agriculture, tribal and refugee communities, and nutrition security. Their collective passion for advancing justice, equity, and climate resilience gave me great hope for the future of food.”  I speak for all of us when I say that it is her work that gives us hope for the future of food and we are honored to follow in her footsteps.

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.