Gus Schumacher on New Technologies and Opportunities at Farmers' Markets

Caption Photograph courtesy of Gus Schumacher

Gus Schumacher

I had the honor and privilege of working for Gus Schumacher, Founding Board Chair of Wholesome Wave, for several years as a policy associate. He was a mentor, a friend and an incredibly passionate advocate for food justice. Last year, I celebrated him and his lifelong commitment to improving healthy food access for low income families through farmers' markets. Mr. Schumacher passed away yesterday, but his legacy will live on. He will be greatly missed.  

Gus Schumacher was the Founding Board Chair of Wholesome Wave. From 1997 to 2001, he served as President Clinton's Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at USDA. Prior to this, Schumacher served as Administrator of USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, worked as a senior Agri-lender for the World Bank, and served as Commissioner of Food and Agriculture for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He received leadership awards from the James Beard Foundation and the EOS Foundation.

What motivated you to first work with farmers' markets?

My family has a long history of growing vegetables and selling at farmers' markets. My great-grandfather John Schumacher and his son Fred Schumacher farmed from 1860 to 1888 at 72nd and Broadway in Manhattan and then from 1888 to 1968 in Queens County (in the neighborhoods of Flushing and New Hyde Park) and sold their produce at Brooklyn and Manhattan farmers' markets.

Schumacher Family Selling Produce at New York City Farmer's Market, 1887

Courtesy Gus Schumacher

Schumacher Family Selling Produce at New York City Farmer's Market, 1887

 

Growing up on our father's farm in Lexington, Massachusetts, my siblings and I sold vegetables from wagon stands in front of our farmhouse. In 1978, my brother John purchased the historic Lookout Farm in South Natick, MA, with a large roadside stand and pick-your-own operation.

Gus Schumacher and his brother selling produce in Lexington, MA in front of Family Farm, early 1950s

Courtesy Gus Schumacher

Gus Schumacher and his brother selling produce in Lexington, MA in front of Family Farm, early 1950s

 

The following two summers, while working as an agricultural project mission chief at the World Bank, I would fly up to Boston on the weekends to drive a truckload of produce to the Field's Corner Farmers Market - one of the first of the new generation inner city farmers' markets. We did well at Field's Corner, often selling out to families in Dorchester who welcomed access to just picked corn, tomatoes, peaches, raspberries and especially fresh beans.

Gus Schumacher and Boston City Council Member Mel King at Lookout Farm Market Stand- Field's Corner, Boston, 1981

Courtesy Gus Schumacher

Gus Schumacher and Boston City Council Member Mel King at Lookout Farm Market Stand- Field's Corner, Boston, 1981

 

What have been exciting developments for farmers' markets and the local food movement in recent years?

I think some of the most exciting developments in the local food movement have been around the creation of nutrition incentive programs and new technologies that expand access to underserved community members at farmers' markets.

In the District of Columbia, the Department of Health, along with the City Council and local funders, developed DC Produce Plus, a program that enables families on Medicaid, SNAP and WIC to receive two $5 checks per week for 24 weeks to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at 50 farmers markets in DC. It's the first program in the country to provide families on Medicaid with six months' worth of financial incentives to purchase fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables. Non-profit DC Greens has raised additional private funds to more than double the program in 2016, introducing software on iPads at markets to collect data and measure outcomes, including preliminary health impact. With these new incentives, SNAP use at DC Farmers Markets rose 43 percent in 2015.

Farmers' market managers are also innovating with technologies like the new interactive map launched by Community Food Works that helps nutritionists and social workers at over 1,000 Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics around the country locate farmers' markets near their healthcare facilities. With over 1.2 million veterans living with diabetes and diet-related diseases, this easy to use tool enables healthcare workers to quickly refer their patients to markets where fresh, local healthy food is sold.  

To help low income veterans on SNAP purchase more healthy fruits and vegetables, Community Food Works,  in partnership with the VA's Community Resource and Referral Center, Wholesome Wave, a local church and individual donors funded a pilot called the Veteran Vegetable Prescription program (V2Rx) in 2015. Through the pilot, Community Food Works provides V2Rx vouchers that VA social workers distribute to veterans. These vouchers help encourage veterans on SNAP to visit farmers' markets and take advantage of Bonus Bucks, Community Food Work's SNAP doubling program. It proved popular. Other VA hospitals such as Martinsburg VA Medical Center are also piloting an onsite farmers market with veggie R/x programs funded by a VA Rural Health grant. 

How do farmers' markets support the development of a sustainable food system?

The modern farmers' market movement jump-started in 1976, when New York's Bob Lewis and Barry Benepe organized  - 40 years ago - one of the first open air farmers market in NYC, now known as Greenmarkets. Brooklyn Congressman Fred Richmond noticed Bob's and Barry's farmers' market innovations in NY. He introduced and Congress passed the 1976 Farmer to Consumer Direct Marketing Act, a bill which still underpins much of the subsequent Congressional legislation supporting farmers' markets and direct marketing. Since then, Congress has greatly expanded support for farmers' market work through the innovative initiatives implemented by dedicated Administrators and their staffs at USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

Over the years, as the farmers' market movement grew to some 8,500 markets currently registered by the USDA, many consumers have asked farmers directly about how their vegetables were grown and if they used pesticides. As a result, many farmers that participated in direct marketing started reducing their pesticide use, using Integrated Pest Management or farming organically, and highlighting their sustainable practices at these exploding markets. These farmers' experiences helped convince members of Congress to pass organic standards legislation. Today, organic food sales are over $43 billion.

What are the biggest challenges facing farmers' markets today?

Consumers continue to flock to farmers markets and want year round access, but demand for local products during the winter continues to outpace supply. A number of farmers have introduced high tunnels and cold storage systems to extend the amount of time local products are available during cold months. USDA's National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has done remarkable work in developing innovative grant programs helping over 12,000 farmers install high tunnels. However, agronomic research on produce varieties suitable for off-season production under these high tunnels continues to lag.

Consumer demand for a wider variety of produce is also deepening as the population becomes more diverse, with Hispanic, African-American and Asian families asking farmers for produce from their culinary traditions. Research on these ethnic vegetable and fruit varieties has not kept up and, as a result, much of this ethnic produce has to be imported today.

Gus Schumacher with Hmong Farmer and his Long Bean Harvest, Fresno CA, 2005

Courtesy Gus Schumacher

Gus Schumacher with Hmong Farmer and his Long Bean Harvest, Fresno CA, 2005

 

Demand for local food by families using federal benefits is also growing rapidly, but technology systems and policy guidelines allowing people to efficiently use these federal benefits at farmers markets has not kept up. There is more than $525 million available in WIC Cash Value Vouchers (CVV) each year that could be going into farmers' pockets, but federal and state policy mandates make it difficult for markets and families to use these vouchers at local farmers markets.

How can farmers' markets expand their reach to all members of the community?

Farmers' markets can magnify their reach through the increased funding and expansion of nutrition incentive programs that encourage families on SNAP and WIC to use their benefits to purchase local produce. 

In 1980, I was selling my brother's fruits and vegetables at the Field's Corner Farmers' Market in Boston. A wooden box of valuable Bosc Pears broke apart and fell into the gutter while I was packing up. When I went to shovel them up, I noticed a woman with her two boys picking up the pears from the gutter.

I gave them some decent fresh fruit from the back of the truck and I asked the mother "Why are you picking up my brother's pears from the gutter?" She said she was on food stamps, her husband had left her and she had no money for fresh fruit for her two boys.

When Commissioner of Food and Agriculture in Massachusetts, I remembered that woman and her two boys picking up my brother's pears from the gutter.  Colleagues and I worked with Dr. Hugh Joseph at the Tufts Nutrition School to develop the WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition program as SNAP food stamps rules at that time did not permit incentives for fresh fruits and vegetables purchased with food stamps.  

In the following three decades, these early WIC and seniors nutrition incentives got the attention of Congress and now receive annual funding, benefiting nearly 900,000 WIC families, a million seniors and some 20,000 farmers selling at local farmers markets each year. 

But when food stamps went electronic, redemptions plunged at farmers' markets. New embryonic portable EBT systems with pilot incentive programs began to be pioneered at NY's Greenmarkets, Crossroads Farmers Market in Maryland and in Lynn, Massachusetts. Hoping to widen the adoption of these portable EBT nutrition incentive systems, a colleague, Michel Nischan, and I founded Wholesome Wave in 2007. In 2008, we asked for and received "waivers" from the USDA - basically government permissions - to pilot a SNAP nutrition incentive program in four farmers' markets around the country. These "waivers" to existing SNAP rules prohibiting their use at farmers' markets were critical to enable SNAP families to use their EBT cards at farmers' markets.

These EBT nutrition incentive programs worked well, and additional "waivers" were granted to more Wholesome Wave-supported markets to double SNAP EBT at farmers' markets. In 2014, working in partnership with a network of farmers' market operators advocating for federal support, advocates convinced Congress to include the $100 million Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program in the Farm Bill to fund programs that double SNAP at farmers' markets. Today, the FINI program has more applicants than it can fund.

Wholesome Wave also started a veggie prescription program (FVRx). But again, funding was modest and non-profit hospitals, who pay no taxes, have been slow in meeting the new guidance from the IRS to invest more in "nutrition, wellness and prevention" initiatives like these nutrition incentive programs in their communities. 

Where can you see the greatest opportunities for the local food movement to grow?

The demand for a sustainable, fresh, affordable local food will continue to grow rapidly and so will the opportunities for farmers to sell to new groups of consumers. Twenty years ago, only a handful of Farm to School programs existed. Now some 40,000 schools have such programs, many with on-campus gardens. CSA demand continues to grow as does the popularity of meal delivery services offering local items.

Consumers are also flocking to new restaurants featuring healthy, locally sourced fresh food...Even Providence, Rhode Island's Amtrak station has a restaurant called Café La France where Chef and Owner Elizabeth Darmstatter features local farms and food firms on her daily menu board! What if every bus station, Amtrak station and airport had a local chef featuring fresh, locally sourced ingredients?

What do you find your biggest source of inspiration day to day?

I'm inspired by the many innovations, new businesses and new jobs fostered by America's direct marketing farmers and market managers. With little research available from local land grant universities on ethnic crop varieties, American farmers are experimenting with growing techniques and test marketing these products successfully at local farmers' markets. Lines are long for these new ethnic varieties and more and more food hubs such as Farm Fresh RI in Pawtucket, Rhode Island are springing up every year to help meet customer demand for these and other locally-produced foods.

Note: this interview was edited for brevity and clarity. All photos courtesy of Gus Schumacher. This post was originally published in May 2016.