Secretary Vilsack speaking during the 2021 National Rural Housing Conference. (Source: Housing Assistance Council)

According to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is incorporating an equity commission to review its activities, a move meant to provide greater equality and fairness in a department that has not always lived up to that.  

Vilsack was interviewed during the 2021 National Rural Housing Conference. Put on by the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), a national nonprofit that supports affordable housing efforts throughout rural America, it provides below-market financing for affordable housing and community development, technical assistance and training, research and information, and policy formulation.

“We're making sure that everything that we do goes through an equity lens,” Vilsack said during the interview. “So, for example, when we look at rural development, we know that we have a series of competitive programs, where people have to make applications for resources. And sometimes there're more applications than there are resources.”

Matching funds may be easy to come by in communities close to larger metropolitan areas, he noted, but not so much for areas in Appalachia or tribal communities.

“So it's important for us to look for ways in which we can lessen that burden,” he added.

Vilsack said that when people think of poverty in the United States, they often think about poverty in inner cities, not in rural communities.

“I totally understand why they think that but the reality of poverty is that there's probably deeper and more persistent poverty in rural areas, in part because we've allowed the economy of rural America to be an extraction economy and not a circular one,” Vilsack said.

“What I mean by this is, if you think about what we've done in rural America, we basically take things from the land, or out of the land, or above or below the lands. And we transport them to some other place where value and opportunity is added, where the jobs are created, where the businesses are created.”

Opportunities to work in climate will help rural communities, Vilsack believes.

“We're creating opportunities for farmers, for example, to benefit from conservation practices that create more carbon sequestration and storage,” he said, adding that the department looks forward to paying farmers to embrace the practices.

“So they, in turn, can go out in the private market, and obtain carbon credits and additional income source that they can take agricultural waste and converted in a bioprocessing facility located in rural America, funded by the USDA, to convert it into a fuel or fiber or material or a chemical, all of which will help us create that circular economy and frankly, also have a significant benefit from a climate perspective.”

One issue, however, is that people in rural areas may not trust the USDA due to past practices, so the department is looking at creating teams that will go into communities, mostly persistently poor, and establish themselves.

“I think it has a profound opportunity to literally send a message to these persistently poor areas, that, in fact, hope is its way,” Vilsack added.

In terms of housing and community development, Vilsack said the key for the USDA is creating a diverse workforce. 

“In other words, you attract diversity and inclusion in the people that you're hiring and staff that you develop, so that people have a connection and understanding of the folks they are dealing with on the ground. USDA, I think, is really making an effort to try to be an incredibly diverse and inclusive place to work,” he said.

“And I think we're attracting some really top-notch talent that can understand and can relate to people who were living in persistently poor areas, because some of these folks have come from those persistently poor areas, and understand and appreciate the need to give something back.”

Local leaders need to continue to work with the USDA to figure out how to make sure that the department is creating more affordable housing opportunities that may involve the construction of multiple-family dwellings, and making sure that as these new homes are being constructed, that families of color, in particular, have access to them that they can actually get the financing,” he said. 

In addition to housing, Vilsack envisions those communities also servicing local and regional food systems to enable people to have access to nutritious food in a way that has very little greenhouse gas impact and is produced sustainably.

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