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Revolutionizing Environmental Justice or More of the Same? A Closer Look at USDA’s REAP Program

Food Integrity Campaign | June 13, 2023

Environmental justice has long been a cause close to our hearts at the Food Integrity Campaign. We believe that every individual, regardless of their background, deserves access to clean and sustainable energy sources. That is why we have been closely monitoring the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and its potential to revolutionize the landscape of environmental justice. However, recent changes in the program have raised concerns and called into question its commitment to just and sustainable practices. FIC joined with 155 organizations in conveying our concerns about REAP directly to Secretary Thomas Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture.

Addressing Energy Poverty

Energy poverty remains a critical challenge in the United States, with approximately one-third of households struggling to meet their basic energy needs. Low-income communities and communities of color face the brunt of this issue, lacking access to affordable and reliable energy sources. This disparity forces them to rely on polluting alternatives, which have detrimental effects on both their health and the environment. REAP, with its focus on renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvement grants to rural small businesses and rural producers, aims to break this cycle of energy poverty. By providing financial assistance and incentives for adopting renewable energy technologies, REAP offers a glimmer of hope for rural communities overburdened by pollution from dirty energy.

Questioning the Direction of REAP

Recently, the Inflation Reduction Act allocated $2 billion to REAP for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvement grants for agricultural producers and small business owners. This infusion of resources could greatly improve the lives of many rural Americans. While REAP holds immense potential, recent changes have raised eyebrows and ignited concerns among advocates for environmental justice. The program’s new selection criteria and emphasis on certain technologies, such as manure digesters and wood biomass facilities, have come under scrutiny. While projects like solar and wind undoubtedly have their benefits, solutions like livestock biogas and wood pellet projects have been shown to exacerbate health and environmental impacts on already overburdened communities. As part of our steadfast commitment to our Rural Partnerships initiative, we work tirelessly to challenge what we refer to as “false solutions” like biogas that perpetuate failed paradigms and compound the suffering of marginalized communities.

Community Engagement: A Cornerstone of Environmental Justice

REAP is one of many programs covered under the Justice40 Initiative. Justice40 is a commitment from the Biden Administration to ensure that “40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.” The benefits include one or more of the following seven areas: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure.

All Justice40 covered programs are required to engage in stakeholder consultation and ensure that community stakeholders are meaningfully involved. REAP’s stated purpose is to emphasize community engagement, ensuring that the transition to renewable energy is a participatory process. By involving local residents in decision-making processes, REAP should foster a sense of ownership and empower rural communities to shape their energy future. This inclusive approach not only amplifies the voices of marginalized communities but also ensures that the benefits of renewable energy are accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location. However, recent changes in the program’s scoring system have raised concerns that it may actually work against community interests, favoring the placement of new methane digesters and other factory farm gas infrastructure in already disadvantaged and distressed communities. We must remain vigilant and advocate for genuine stakeholder involvement to safeguard the interests of these communities.

The Need for Environmental Equity

Environmental justice extends beyond energy access; it encompasses a range of interconnected issues, including air quality, water pollution, and the impacts of climate change. To address these challenges effectively, REAP must prioritize environmental equity. This can only be achieved by supporting policies and initiatives that promote transparency, accountability, and the meaningful involvement of stakeholders at all levels. By championing these principles, REAP can become a powerful force in bridging the gaps and ensuring that no community is left behind in the quest for a sustainable future.

As advocates for food integrity and environmental justice, it is our duty to remain informed, engaged, and vocal in holding the USDA accountable. Together, through community engagement, transparency, and environmental equity, we can shape the future of REAP and work towards a more just and sustainable food future.



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