Tuesday, July 14, 2009

USDA Secretary Vilsack Speaks At NAACP Convention

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, participated in the NAACP's 100th Anniversary celebration in New York, N.Y., and reaffirmed his commitment to advancing civil rights at the agency - both for the department's customers and employees. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is implementing a comprehensive and aggressive program to improve the department's record on civil rights by correcting past errors, learning from mistakes, and moving into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.

The Obama Administration has already taken several actions to improve civil rights at USDA. In May, President Obama announced his plans to include settlement funds for black farmers in the FY 2010 budget to bring closure to their long-standing lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1999, the USDA entered into a consent agreement with black farmers in which the agency agreed to pay farmers for past discrimination in lending and other USDA programs. Thousands of claims have been adjudicated, but thousands of other claims were not considered on their merits because problems with the notification and claims process hindered some farmers' ability to participate. The total amount offered by the federal government is $1.25 billion.

President Obama's announcement followed a memorandum released by Vilsack in April, which detailed an aggressive plan to promote civil rights and equal access at USDA. The memo announced the following: Temporarily suspending all foreclosures within the Farm Service Agency's farm loan program, which is not only aiding farmers facing economic hardship but also providing the opportunity to review the loan granting process for possible discriminatory conduct; Creating a Task Force to conduct a review of a sample of program civil rights complaints that have been processed or that are currently being processed - the complaints and inquiries total over 14,000, including over 3,000 that have not been processed; and Granting greater authority to USDA's Office of Civil Rights.

The Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights will collaborate with the other agencies to develop and implement a proposal for data collection across USDA, make sure all complaints are incorporated as part of one data system; and develop USDA policy and training to ensure that all complaints are received and dealt with in a consistent manner within a specific timeframe. (USDA)

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