Chair DeLauro Statement at the U.S. Department of Agriculture - The Year Ahead Hearing

2021-04-14 10:26

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, delivered the following remarks at the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on The U.S. Department of Agriculture - The Year Ahead.

Thank you Chairman Bishop and Ranking Member ­­­­­­­­­Fortenberry. And, Secretary Vilsack, welcome back to the Appropriations Committee. I look forward to your testimony on the Administration’s fiscal year 2022 discretionary budget request and your vision for the Department in the year ahead.

It was a pleasure to work with you during your first term as Secretary, and I admire your deep dedication to American agriculture and rural America. Please know that the invitation is always open for you to come visit Connecticut and see firsthand the State’s diversity – from our family farm dairies, nursery and greenhouse operations, to our specialty crop growers. Farmers in my district and across Connecticut are models of regenerative agriculture and sustainable food production. And, my city of New Haven is one of few cities in the country with a full-time Food Policy Director dedicated to reforming the food system and promoting urban agriculture.

The COVID-19 pandemic created the largest public health and economic crisis in a generation, and our food system was not spared. Early on, farmers faced severe supply chain disruptions that shut down their markets and threatened their livelihoods. I appreciated your assistance and insight you provided my staff and I last summer. Some of these problems have been addressed, while other challenges remain.

The pandemic has also pulled back the curtain on the food and nutrition crisis that continues to plague our nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, hunger remains nearly three times higher than the pre-pandemic level. And, households with children are more likely to report not getting enough to eat, with as many as 11 million children living in a household facing hunger, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That is unconscionable, and I believe you believe it is unconscionable. It was Senator Robert Kennedy that said, “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.”

This skyrocketing hunger adds to the longstanding inequities of our food system, including issues like food deserts, which restrict access to food, but importantly fresh and healthy foods, and disproportionately impact low-income people and families of color.

That is especially concerning because we know that diet-related chronic diseases, like obesity and hypertension, worsen COVID-19 outcomes.

So, in the context of building back better, Mr. Secretary, I would say you are going to be busy. I want to thank you for your swift action in implementing the American Rescue Plan – which extended the 15 percent food stamp increase and the Pandemic-EBT program. And, I look forward to collaborating and partnering with you on our shared priorities.

That is why I am pleased by the initiatives outlined in the Discretionary Request released last week.

The request expands investments in rural economies aimed at increasing quality of life and reducing persistent poverty in rural areas, which I know is an important focus for our Subcommittee Chairman, Mr. Bishop.

Additionally, the request addresses racial equity in agriculture by increasing funding for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and establishes an Equity Commission to review the distribution of farm programs. These efforts would build on the $5 billion in debt relief to black, brown, and native farmers in the American Rescue Plan. I appreciate the commitment to this issue of systemic discrimination.

I am pleased with the increased funding for USDA’s science and research agencies, which had to endure four years of repeated attacks. Agencies like the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) were targeted, hollowed out, and moved from Washington, DC. Your task is to rebuild and refocus these Agencies, which have long been trusted for their unbiased research and expertise.

And, agricultural research is as important now as it ever has been. I believe research holds the key to making agriculture a solution to the climate crisis. We ought to advance regenerative agriculture practices that capture carbon by building soil organic matter. And, we should pursue parity in research funding for alternative proteins. The United States can continue to be a global leader on alternative protein science, and these technologies can play an important role in combatting climate change and adding resiliency to our food system. 

I also welcome the $74 million increase to the Food Safety and Inspection Service to bolster small and regional meat processing. FSIS’s resources disproportionately go to the big, corporate meatpackers. That is a problem because, according to the Department’s own data, while consolidation in meatpacking has increased since 2000, consumer prices for beef, pork, and poultry skyrocketed by 82 percent, 44 percent, and 33 percent, respectively. It is time we rethink current policies that have allowed monopolies to flourish at the expense of farmers and consumers.

Speaking of FSIS, I want to personally let you know how disheartened I am by the Agency’s actions over the last year. During the pandemic, workers in meat plants have been treated as expendable and exploited. A recent Freedom of Information Act request obtained emails with industry representatives and showed that FSIS leadership – many of whom are still at the Agency – spent more time worrying about the public image of industry over the lives of workers and federal inspection personnel. Secretary Vilsack, that Agency needs reform.

Speaking of reform, I believe the Department must rethink its role in international trade. Whether it is tainted Brazilian beef imported by meatpackers who sell it here with a Product of the USA label, or other food imports from countries with production systems that degrade natural resources, the United States should never pursue trade deals at the expense of American farmers, food safety, and jobs.

Lastly, I look forward to hearing more about your plans to fight hunger and strengthen nutrition security. These must be our priority, and I agree with your previous statements – we should fund our priorities. I believe there are areas to act within the discretionary budget as well as the forthcoming mandatory request, but I also want to underscore the urgency of a comprehensive and coordinated response especially as Congress considers a future recovery package focused on rebuilding our nation’s physical and social infrastructure.

117th Congress