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Ertharin Cousin: Improving Social Equity in the Food and Agriculture Industry

True sustainability in the agriculture industry starts with equity. When we take steps to recognize the challenges members in our community face around issues of equity – when we are committed to providing all farmers and farmworkers an equal chance of success and prosperity—we are building a community that is stronger, a community that is more resilient, and a community where all groups are valued and affirmed.

USDA Equity Commission Co-Chair Ertharin Cousin, a scholar and expert on global nutrition and food systems, revels in the importance of improving outcomes for underserved communities.

“With the door open to connect directly with Department leaders on equity issues that span several groups, the Equity Commission has the opportunity to hold USDA accountable to develop a realistic pathway forward in meeting its commitment to equity for all,” Cousin says.

As the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and former Executive Director of the World Food Programs, Co-Chair Cousin is no stranger to partnering with and carrying out USDA initiatives. With her expertise in the field, coupled with a hands-on approach, USDA will be able to demonstrate its commitment and contributions to equity and inclusion.

This work and the work of the Equity Commission is built on significant partnerships. No single entity can transform the food system on its own. No single group can sustain the agricultural industry on its own. For that reason, as USDA rolls out new and improved processes, programs, and services, the future of the agriculture industry depends on the Department’s ability to inspire the next generation of farmers with this effort. Cousin believes in the opportunity to make agriculture trendy again so that those who don’t see a future beyond their computers can realize the future of agriculture through innovative technology.

“We need the next generation of farmers to not think of agriculture as what their grandfathers did but as the industry that will feed their children and to know that’s why they’re needed,” Cousin says.

In thinking about the impact of the Equity Commission recommendations that aim to address equity among historically underserved farmers and farmworkers, Cousin reflects on this opportunity to make real change.

“The recommendations in the forthcoming final report will move USDA to a Department that reflects the America we want as it touches every life in the United States. USDA is more than just farming – it’s housing, nutrition, and many more resources and programs that have traditionally benefitted those who knew how to access the Department,” Cousin says. “With the implementation of the Equity Commission recommendations, the benefits and value of the Department can be fully utilized by all Americans, especially by those who have been historically underserved and left out.”

For the Equity Commission, equity is more than equality and fairness. It’s about giving everyone who interfaces with USDA the same service while also acknowledging that different experiences and backgrounds may require more effort to ensure all can fully benefit from the Department’s offerings.

“I look at the Equity Commission’s Rural Community Economic Development (RCED) Subcommittee recommendations and realize my expanded appreciation for the wide-ranging perspectives to what equity means for our respective communities,” Cousin says. “I’m confident we’re moving forward in a manner that gives everyone the ability to achieve their fullest individual potential through USDA programs and services.”

Cousin elevated to the Co-Chair role to serve alongside Equity Commission Co-Chair Arturo Rodríguez in 2023.

“Co-Chair Cousin has been a tremendous support to the Equity Commission and our subcommittees by asking the tough questions and helping us get to the root of what we’re hoping to achieve within each recommendation,” Rodríguez says. “It’s been an honor to work beside her in championing this work. It has been a labor of love to get to the final report and we’re looking forward to connecting further with USDA as they work to implement the recommendations.”

While there have been commissions before, Cousin believes that the actions outlined by this Equity Commission will make headway so that USDA’s programs and services become reflective of all populations.

“In the publishing of our final report, we’re hopeful that the Department, with Congress’ help, will implement recommendations in a manner which cements sustainable change beyond the life of this Commission,” Cousin says. “The Secretary challenged me to be bold in serving on the Commission. As Co-Chair, I’ve accepted that challenge and embraced his direction while also remaining pragmatic to ensure what we put forward drives expansive impact for our communities.”

As Cousin affirms, success with the Equity Commission means the Department removes longstanding barriers that have challenged underserved communities in navigating and accessing USDA programs and services. By doing this, the Department can ensure it is setting a foundation of equity in its services, programs, and support.

USDA’s Equity Commission held its sixth public meeting in October 2023 where the Commission voted on recommendations to include in the final report including revised and new recommendations. The full meeting minutes will be available on the Equity Commission website in the coming weeks. The Interim Report is available in both English (PDF, 1.2 MB) and Spanish (PDF, 1.3 MB). The final report is set to release at USDA’s National Equity Summit on February 22, 2024.

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