Several agencies announced plans Tuesday to increase equity throughout the federal government, including changes to the Agriculture Department’s WIC program and priority for rural and tribal communities in distribution of broadband funding by the Commerce Department.

Under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden last January, more than 90 federal agencies crafted action plans to improve services to historically underserved communities. 

“This was truly a whole of government endeavor,” Susan Rice, the Biden Administration’s domestic policy adviser, said during a panel discussion Thursday. 

As a part of the initiative, USDA announced its plans to include online ordering in the WIC nutrition program, which issues certain food vouchers to parents with children under 5 years old. The program also provides those parents with nutrition counseling, parenting advice and breastfeeding support. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who also was on the panel, said the program has not been adequately serving people in certain communities.

“We only have a 50% participation rate and we know that women of color are disproportionately excluded from this program,” Vilsack said. 

In addition to the WIC announcement, Vilsack highlighted other USDA efforts at improving equity in its programs, including the recent implementation of a 15-member commission tasked with reviewing the USDA’s current policies and programs and making recommendations on how the department can better serve underserved communities. 

According to the USDA’s equity action plan, the agency hopes to expand access to its nutrition assistance programs, reduce barriers for underserved producers who hope to participate in agency programs, build out its civil rights office, and work to improve how it serves tribal communities.

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“I think we're all well aware of the history of USDA, which for far too long continued to be one of discrimination, disinvestment, exclusion, and denied opportunity,” Vilsack said. “Efforts were undertaken during the Obama-Biden administration to write a new history for USDA, but President Biden's executive order allows us to continue that effort and to engage in a deeper and more comprehensive effort.”

The Department of Commerce says its new equity action plan will help it prioritize underserved areas as it distributes over $50 billion in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding for internet access. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the agency plans to take a close look at the five-year broadband action plans proposed by states and territories to make sure funding goes to the areas where it is needed the most.

“We are deadly serious about this,” Raimondo said. “We are not going to send any [money] out the door unless we are convinced that that plan is going to deliver broadband to everybody.”

During a press call Tuesday, a senior White House official told reporters Biden is the first President to require agencies to implement equity action plans and that agencies will continue to build on them over the long term. 

“We really do see this as a marathon, as well as a sprint,” the official said. “This is going to take a long, sustained effort…to close these critical gaps. But we’re excited about this work.”

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