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Apr 8 -- In accordance with the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack established an Equity Commission. The USDA Equity Commission will advise the Secretary of Agriculture by facilitating identification of critical USDA programs, policies, systems, structures, and practices that contribute to barriers to inclusion or access, systemic discrimination, or exacerbate or perpetuate racial, economic, health and social disparities. A Rural Community Economic Development (RCED) Subcommittee is being formed and will be charged with providing recommendations on issues and concerns related to rural development, persistent poverty, and underserved communities. We will consider applications that are received by May 6, 2022.

While USDA's expansive presence in rural communities is one of its greatest strengths, it is increasingly clear that the decentralized, local nature of information sharing and decision-making can be problematic, especially for underserved communities and non-traditional customers. For example, local and regional food systems is a complex industry with significant up-front costs including land, seed, labor, fertilizer, and other inputs. In addition to assistance accessing affordable capital, producers often need assistance with business plan development, tax planning, expand market, or simply navigating the complexity of the financial institutions from which they are seeking to secure credit, be that USDA or elsewhere. These challenges are compounded in rural communities of persistent poverty where race and location combined have resulted in structural exclusion from financial systems and other ladders of opportunity.

Underserved communities and populations are disproportionately impacted by the effects of economic and environmental shocks. As the world continues to experience the impacts of a pandemic and the devastating impacts of climate change, including drought, flooding, wildfire, and increased severity of storms, these communities are often on the front lines. Historic inequities have often left such communities and populations with low capacity to deal with these challenges. In fact, two-thirds of over 3,000 counties in the United States are rural and 310 of those rural communities have high and persistent levels of poverty. Rural communities are generally closer to land and water, making its residents, housing, businesses, and infrastructure more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Of the 310, 86% or 267 counties are rural and concentrated in persistently poor areas of the Delta Region, Appalachia, the Southern Border Region, Puerto Rico and other insular areas, and on Native American lands. The majority (60%) of people living in persistent poverty‚ÄČcounties are people of color. Since investments have historically lagged in these areas, their already vulnerable position is made worse by the inadequate and affordable access to reliable infrastructure, public services, and community economic development opportunities.

The American Rescue Plan Act provides USDA a generational opportunity to leverage the Equity Commission and empower rural stakeholders to make recommendations to the Secretary in advancing equity at USDA and its programs. Launched on February 28, 2022, to kick off its Subcommittee for Agriculture, the Equity Commission in collaboration with USDA determined a need for an additional Subcommittee focused on RCED issues.

The RCED Subcommittee will be focused on providing recommendations that would enable underserved communities to have equitable access to USDA programs and increase their capacity to break the cycle of persistent poverty. USDA programs may include those that support or affect the following rural issues:

Local and regional food
Workforce development
Small businesses
Cooperative development
Capacity building
Community planning
Technical assistance
Data management
Housing
Community facilities
Telecommunication and broadband
Electric and clean energy
Recreational economy
Water, wastewater, and solid waste
Lending and lender relationships
Tribal
Healthcare
 
The RCED Subcommittee will be comprised of 15 members, including:

4 representatives from community-based organizations;
2 representatives from lending institutions;
2 representatives from small business or cooperatives;
1 representative from a tribal entity;
1 university, community college, or trades personnel;
3 individuals selected at the discretion of the Secretary; and,
2 members from the Equity Commission.
 
Subcommittee membership expires along with the parent Equity Commission on March 2024 unless extended.

FRN: https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2022-07260

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