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NIFA Makes Important Contributions to Environmental Justice Initiative

Nifa Authors
Estelle Robichaux , Climate Change Fellow

Rural and agricultural communities are on the front lines of dealing with the cumulative impacts of environmental degradation and climate change. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is working to bring the government’s commitment to environmental justice to everyone.  

Providing input for the USDA’s department-wide assessment for the White House’s Environmental Justice Scorecard gave NIFA an opportunity to reflect on the work done in the past year. Here are some highlights of how NIFA has invested in environmental justice, sustainable communities and future agriculture leaders. 

Environmental Justice, Sustainable Communities and Future Agriculture Leaders 

Environmental Justice Competitive Funding Priority 

USDA NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational and Applied Science Program launched a priority area specifically focused on Environmental Justice. Earlier this year, NIFA awarded nearly $1 million for a collaborative project led by researchers at North Carolina A&T University, an 1890 Land-grant Institution, to develop methods that will measure how federal investments translate to community benefits.  

Increasing Investments in Minority-Serving Institutions 

Between 2021 and 2023, NIFA more than doubled its investment in minority-serving institutions (MSI), building their capacity to attract, retain and graduate students who can enhance the nation’s food and agricultural workforce. Across NIFA’s portfolio, the agency invested $528 million in 2023 across these institutions, including over $15 million to Hispanic-serving Institutions. 

Supporting Future Leaders and Innovators 

Supported by more than $262 million in NIFA funding, the “From Learning to Leading: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Food and Agriculture Professionals” (NextGen) program is creating agricultural career development opportunities for minority-serving institutions’ students. The 33 funded NextGen projects, being delivered by more than 60 MSI partners, will train and support more than 20,000 future food and agricultural leaders and innovators.  

Sustainable Agriculture Means Building Sustainable Communities 

With NIFA support, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program produces research-based, farmer-driven information about practicing sustainable agriculture, including sustainable communities and social equity. In 2023, SARE developed and released a bulletin to draw attention to social sustainability in agriculture. The publication outlined some of the most pressing personal and social challenges facing people working in agriculture and offered suggestions for how communities and individuals can begin to make their employees, families, communities and themselves more prosperous, resilient and sustainable. 

Justice40 Highlight: Workforce Development Program 

USDA NIFA’s Justice40 Workforce Development Program covers six competitive funding programs, focused on promoting, strengthening and supporting MSIs, Tribal students and students at 1890 Land-grant Universities.  

Bridging Education to Professional Opportunities 

With NIFA funding, Northern Arizona University, a Hispanic-serving Institution, is developing an integrated education, experience and workforce preparation program for undergraduate students at the intersection of forests, fires and floods. More than 30 students from diverse backgrounds will participate in a three-semester program that will include mentoring, a paid internship and professional networking to learn about workforce needs and career opportunities. 

A NIFA-supported project at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Interior Alaska will train participants to be leaders in Alaska Native issues related to food and energy security, while incorporating indigenous ways of knowing. The effort is a collaboration between multiple UAF campuses delivering curriculum through four academic programs in ethnobotany, high latitude range management, tribal governance and stewardship, and sustainable energy. UAF campuses provide educational opportunities to Alaska Native and rural residents across more than 166 Alaska Native communities. 

Success in Hydroponic Farming During Extreme Weather Events 

In 2021, NIFA’s Distance Education Grants Program funded a project at University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez focused on training Extension agents, farmers and community members in aquaponic production. Recently, Puerto Rico faced extreme weather with the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona and summer heatwaves. Realtime virtual communication, video-based reports and the existence of a chat network between distance education hubs allowed for the fast reporting and sharing of information within the network of Extension agents and community members. The infrastructure, skills-based capacity and relationships supported by NIFA helped keep five aquaponics sites running and save hundreds of fish during a weather-based crisis when travel on the island was difficult. Eight Extension agents and 58 community members have been trained through this program so far.  

Long-term Investments to Support Sustainable Food Systems 

Developed by an Extension team at University of Hawaii (UH), and with support from NIFA, GoFarm Hawaii (GFH) develops and supports commercial farmers who are well prepared to meet production and business challenges, and immediately contribute to the state's food sustainability goals. GoFarm Hawaiʻi has grown to become one of the largest and most successful beginning farmer development programs in the country. More than 40 GFH graduates have begun farming commercially, while other graduates are working for others in farming or supporting the food system. GFH is reaching important underserved groups, with a significant number of participants who are ethnic minorities or women. The GFH program is succeeding in developing new farmers and supporting current farmers looking for ways to improve their operations, and program demand continues to grow.    

We are proud of the work we’ve done to support farmers, ranchers, foresters and communities and we look forward to learning from you, our partners and stakeholders, about how we can continue to grow and adapt our programs to better serve you. Join us for a listening session on environmental justice later this summer. More details will be available soon. 

Farm Bill Priority Areas
Agriculture economics and rural communities
U.S. States and Territories
North Carolina
Puerto Rico

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