Agriculture Action

USDA officials break down department’s antisemitism action in meeting with lawmakers

The Department of Agriculture’s responsibilities span from food assistance programs to managing rural schools and land-grant universities

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Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) speaks during a press conference on new legislation to support Holocaust education nationwide at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 27, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Members of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism met with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday to discuss the agency’s work in implementing the administration’s national antisemitism strategy, which spans from providing access to kosher food to the needy to combating antisemitism at rural schools.

The department’s role in implementing the strategy initially came as a surprise to many in the Jewish community, including Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), who co-chairs the House task force.

“I was shocked,” Manning told JI, but “as [USDA officials] talked about all the different things they work on, it became apparent why USDA needs to be involved in this.”

The department, she explained, oversees not just farming, but also food aid programs for the needy; rural schools and land-grant universities; and rural youth programs, among a range of other areas. 

Its goals include ensuring that kosher and halal food are available under food assistance and school breakfast and lunch programs, educating Forest Service law enforcement on identifying and countering antisemitism and creating antisemitism education programs for youth organizations.

For the schools that USDA oversees, the department is working on assessing the scope of antisemitism complaints on campus, creating resources on addressing antisemitism and teaching about Jewish culture and antisemitism, distributing Holocaust education resources and ensuring that proper accommodation procedures and inclusive calendars are in place. Manning said the department is working closely with the Department of Education.

“They haven’t had a lot of [antisemitism] complaints from those kinds of schools, but they don’t know,” Manning said. “Is it that everything’s hunky-dory there, or is that nobody has ever reached out and people haven’t understood that they can speak out if they’re experiencing antisemitism?”

She said the officials explained that expanding access to kosher and halal food for aid programs has been difficult because such programs generally seek the lowest-cost products, while kosher-certified products tend to be more expensive. She added that they had discussed options for sourcing lower-cost kosher-certified goods, particularly non-meat options.

According to Manning, the USDA officials said that the agency will be organizing a Seder dinner for participants at an upcoming conference of USDA youth programs that overlaps with Passover. There are also plans to set up a Holocaust exhibit at the event.

USDA is also hosting a summit of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders in May in Omaha, Neb., on countering antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate and bias. 

Additionally, the agency has been working on partnership programs between Israeli and American farmers, to collaborate on innovations in agriculture and technology.

Manning was joined at the meeting by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small and Samantha Joseph, who leads the department’s center for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.

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