Department of Agriculture: Feeding America


Sasha and her friends decide that when they grow up, they want to start a farm. However, they're not sure how they're going to get the money to buy the land, animals, and seeds. They are also worried about what might happen if a hurricane or another natural disaster damages their property. To be on the safe side, they decide to do a bit of research first.


While Sasha and her friends have a long way to go before they can start a farm, the Department of Agriculture provides resources for those who want to. For instance, it oversees specific loans for beginner farmers and ranchers, emergency assistance for natural disasters, and reimbursement for transportation for farmers in geographically disadvantaged areas. While the Department oversees a variety of topics, farming was its original purpose, and it remains a key part of the Department’s work.

Department of Agriculture

The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, is a federal executive department and a unit of the executive branch. The President appoints its Secretary, who also serves in the Cabinet to advise the President. President Abraham Lincoln established the USDA on May 15, 1862, though it did not have Cabinet-level status until 1889. The USDA is responsible for developing and executing federal laws related to farming, food, forestry, and rural economic development. In addition to promoting agricultural production, it also works to ensure food safety, protect natural resources, and end hunger in the United States and around the world.

The History

In 1839, Congress established an Agricultural Division within the Patent Office, though it transferred the office to the Department of the Interior in 1849. Still a largely agrarian nation with around half of the American population living on farms, many people believed the government should form a separate department to handle and promote issues of agriculture. So in 1862, Abraham Lincoln established the independent Department of Agriculture. Throughout the 1880s, advocacy groups tried to get Cabinet-level status for the Department, and in 1889, they succeeded, with President Grover Cleveland elevating it. 

How It Works

Due to the numerous roles and responsibilities of the USDA, twenty-nine agencies and offices work to support the Department's goal, all with a specific function. For instance, the Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS, is in charge of administering national nutrition assistance programs to address the issue of hunger. One of the larger programs the agency oversees is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food-purchasing assistance to low- and no-income individuals and families. In 2018, the program supplied around forty million people with benefits. The FNS is also in charge of the National School Lunch Program, which provides low or no-cost lunches to approximately thirty million students around the country. It also oversees the School Breakfast Program, which studies have found improves nutrient intakes in participants, improves school performance, and reduces absenteeism in students in comparable socioeconomic levels.

Another agency that reports to the USDA is the United States Forest Service, or USFS, which works to maintain the diversity, health, and productivity of forests and grasslands. It also manages wildland fires on national forests and grasslands and designed the famous "Smokey the Bear" cartoon to inform individuals of their responsibilities in preventing wildfires. Additionally, there are USDA agencies and offices that work on research and education, rural development, and food safety.

Applying It

However, the USDA also has its flaws. In the 1999 lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, tens of thousands of Black farmers filed a class-action lawsuit against the USDA, stating that the agency has historically discriminated against black farmers by preventing their access to programs and denying them loans. The farmers won their case, receiving settlements of $50,0000, and in 2008, a new provision in a farm bill gave any claimants who had filed a complaint late a new right to sue, and 25,000 people filed lawsuits. Since then, Hispanic, Native American, and women farmers have filed more lawsuits, and the total payout could reach $4.4 billion. Critics say that the settlements were fueled by racial politics and argue that widespread fraud has occurred, taking money from taxpayers, including Black, Hispanic, Native American, and women taxpayers. Proponents say that the options for lawmakers were to set such a high bar for a settlement that many who the USDA discriminated against would not receive payment or set a low bar that allows some fraudulent claims to slip through.

Additionally, in June of 2019, two major research agencies of the USDA were split up, and most of their workers were forced to move across the country, from D.C. to Kansas City. The union that represents these workers says that less than 25% of those who need to relocate will continue with the USDA, with most leaving the Department for other jobs. While the budget increased on a yearly basis from 2009-2014 and 2015-2016, under the Trump administration, the USDA faced severe budget cuts that left it with hundreds of open positions. By weakening the research divisions of the Department, it becomes much harder for the USDA to continue its work on addressing problems faced by farmers, the effects of climate change on U.S. agriculture, and other fields of specialized knowledge.

The USDA is a department that oversees critical functions like food inspections, food security, and rural development initiatives. It has set up seven regional hubs to assess the effects of climate change and work with farmers affected by it. So even if you live in a city, far away from any rural areas, the USDA still has an impact on you. However, despite its benefits and the hard work of many employees, the Department still has issues of systemic racism and discrimination, which affect many people.

Think Further

  1. Some people argue that the Department of the Interior should take over the Forest Service, as it already manages the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think the Pigford case helped solve the issue of systemic racism and discrimination within the Department of Agriculture? What else does the Department still need to do?
  3. What can you do to advocate for greater equality and equity within the Department of Agriculture and its programs?


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Learn More

  1. About FNS | USDA-FNS.
  2. About the Agency | US Forest Service. 
  3. Kiely, Eugene. “Obama and the ‘Pigford’ Cases.” FactCheck, 29 Apr. 2011.,
  4. USDA Celebrates 150 Years., 
  5. Kennedy, E., and C. Davis. “US Department of Agriculture School Breakfast Program.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 67, no. 4, Oxford Academic, Apr. 1998, pp. 798S-803S.,