Local and Affordable Food, Everywhere

A conversation with Gus Schumacher.

Rodger Wasson: Conversations about farm to table inevitably get around to criticisms that these are elitist areas, and perspectives are from an elitist perspective, because there is the perception that only the well-off can indulge in farmers markets and local foods at high-end restaurants.  Well, not everybody accepts that vision and in fact we have a visionary with us today, Gus Schumacher.  And Gus is one of the real leaders in American agriculture.  He has been involved in leadership at the USDA, he was the commissioner of agriculture in Massachusetts he’s got a background in working for agriculture, really, globally, and he’s always pretty close to exciting, new areas.

Gus Schumacher: Rodger, good to hear from you and of course you have been active in Ag as well with both international and domestic, so looking forward to talking with you. .

Rodger Wasson: Well, Gus isn’t it interesting – I think there was a time when we looked at the frontier as primarily international and now we find ourselves looking more and more at local levels and local opportunities.  And you helped form an organization called Wholesome Wave, just – I’m not going to give it all away because I’m going to invite you to explain what it’s all about, but I think in a nutshell it’s that the access to local foods and fruits and vegetables shouldn’t be something just for the wealthy.  It should be something that should be available to everyone.  It should be good, then, for the consumers, for the people locally.  It should be good for farmers as well.  Can you expand on what it’s about and what you had in mind when you helped set up Wholesome Wave?

Gus Schumacher: About ten years ago with a friend of mine, a chef named Michel Nischan who is also interested in this area, we were chatting and looked at the Farm Bill, from the export promotion to different programs to develop a safety net.  But when you look at the Farm Bill, 80% of the Farm Bill is for nutrition.  And when you look at the nutrition there was a pretty chunky amount to help on the food stamps, which is now called SNAP, and the WIC program.  When I was Under Secretary I looked at the Commodity Credit Corporation.  We could also see that we could also help with vegetables by providing a Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program which is now, over 300 million dollars later, benefitting 20,000 farmers and about 900,000 citizens, where seniors get vouchers to go only to a farmers market to exchange for healthy fruits and vegetables, and that’s worked well.  So we looked at those programs and said why couldn’t we do something with food stamps so that under the food stamp program, you can buy anything in the supermarket, or a farmers market – they love supermarkets but farmers only get maybe 25 to 10, say 20 percent of the share – why not give them 100% by giving them access to the nutrition programs?  But we felt that the best way to do that was to provide an incentive.  What if Gus Schumacher was on food stamps, I took my food stamp card to a local farmers market – a couple in Davis or  Sacramento – and swiped it and for ten dollars, and then got twenty dollars if I bought fruits and vegetables?  We started that in 2008 and eventually that become a hundred million dollar program , so farmers are getting an extra hundred million dollars over the next few years to provide healthy, fresh, local food.

Rodger Wasson: Let me slow you down there for a second.  So somebody that is on food stamps, or what we refer to now as SNAP programs, has a card and they go to the local farmers market, and again, if they are going to buy ten dollars’ worth, they actually get to buy twenty dollars’ worth.  So that ten dollars, is that farmers market getting reimbursed that additional ten dollars from USDA or from some other program?

Gus Schumacher: Yes, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Lucas put in a hundred million dollars in the 2014 Farm Bill to provide money to farmers markets so they could double those programs.  That would have to be matched, – so lots of healthcare foundation, local communities, real estate, a lot of groups are matching that, but basically there’d be two hundred million dollars that will go to support people on food stamps to purchase healthy, local food at farmers markets.  All that money will go to local farmers.

Rodger Wasson: So I think there’s over 8,600 farmers markets in the United States now, so that most communities have farmers markets of some sort.  Do you have an idea of what percentage of them might have this program available to them?

Gus Schumacher: Well USDA Secretary Vilsack said something around 6,000 direct marketing farmers.  That would, of course, include roadside stands.  But probably certainly three, maybe three thousand – perhaps as much as half of the farmers markets have an EBT machine of some type to, so that they can be using this program.  At Wholesome Wave we received a competitive grant of $3.7 million to work with about 600 farmers markets through our National Nutrition Incentive Network over the next couple years.  And we’ve seen some pretty terrific progress.

Rodger Wasson: Well that’s exciting.  So, as you were pointing out, their dollar goes further at the farmers market, which frankly addresses one of the criticisms of farmers markets, expense. These programs make a big difference,quite a leveler. This sort of incentive makes it so much more affordable.  And then also, Gus, this has got to be helping local farmers expand because the farmers market demand is going up.

Gus Schumacher: As we’ve seen in D.C., farmers are adding some greenhouses to expand on the shorter season and some are now going year-round because of these programs.  One farmer, Matt Harsh, in Maryland, said that he is adding acreage.

Rodger Wasson: Well, and I’ve gone to some farmers markets in the upper Midwest, which you just assumed are going to shut down in the wintertime, but they’re not.  They’ve moved into senior centers and other areas, that they are still able to have produce available – some of it is grown, still, locally in hoops and other ways protected from the elements.  And I would assume that is going to keep spreading, that there will be more and more of them that are going to have products available year-round.

Gus Schumacher: It seems, to my surprise, and I’ve been following this for some years – that’s the fastest-growing part of the farmers market movement, year-round farmers markets.  And I think driven, in part, by the new high tunnel programs that USDA has come up with, about fifteen to sixteen thousand farmers now have gotten some support from the USDA to build these high tunnels and then there’s research going on in terms of how to grow within those high tunnels.  It is fascinating to see how many winter farmers markets are in places I never thought would have them, like Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts now has like nearly eighty winter farmers markets and farmers are growing greens year-round, so who knew?

Rodger Wasson: You know, Gus, you’ve mentioned before that there are some new areas on the horizon, that there are health initiatives that are jumping into this somehow, to provide additional incentives as well.  Could you explain what that picture looks like and the things you see on the frontier of this area?

Gus Schumacher: Yes, Rodger.  One of the areas that areas I’ve seen, again surprising as the demand for fresh, healthy, local and affordable fruit and vegetables really rockets up – is the interest of the healthcare system.  About one-third of Americans now are a little on the chubby side, and quite a few, more than we really need, have diabetes, especially our seniors.  And hospitals are stepping up to provide vouchers to those patients to go to local farmers markets and we work – at Wholesome Wave we call it a veggie prescription program – and that is expanding very rapidly in the healthcare system in different parts of the country.  Washington State with the Department of Public Health and Safeway has a program and the city council in Washington D.C., has now appropriated $1.2 million for connecting Medicaid patients to vouchers. Then particularly the Steward Health Care system in Massachusetts has something called Steward box, it’s seven hospitals where they prescribe fruits and vegetables and over in Cape Cod the doctors basically come up with their own veggie prescription program because they see healthcare and diet as a very important issue.  But one I’m particularly impressed with is the Veterans Administration nutritionist.  I noticed a lot of Vietnam, and Korean veterans, and more recent veterans are getting vouchers at different VA hospitals in Northport, Long Island, and Connecticut, in West Virginia, and in D.C., where the farmers markets have raised money and give vouchers or veteran’s prescription vouchers, to VA nutritionists.  They then take their vouchers to the local markets and get as much as twenty or thirty dollars a week.  I’m particularly impressed with New York State, where their commissioner has actually created a veterans farmers market nutrition program.  And that, now, is very popular in the VA clinic, hospitals in New York State, especially at the Northport VA Hospital that I visited recently.  So again, the hospitals, whether they are regular hospitals like in New York or Washington or Boston, or the VA hospitals, are reaching deep and saying we need to provide a healthier access to all through these new veggie prescription programs – we’re proud of the people who put that together.

Rodger Wasson: Are these being rolled out across the country as a federal program, or are these just spontaneously popping up around the country as these hospitals and other organizations are looking for creative solutions and hearing about what’s going on in other states? What feels different to me is that these are just, are happening at different places across the country and, it doesn’t seem to be like the classic federal program rollout.

Gus Schumacher: No, it’s – these are different.  – Michel Nischan and I kind of started a few of these in New York City, with some of the hospitals three or four years ago.  In fact, Mayor Menino, who unfortunately passed away in Boston, started one of the first ones with us in the Codman Square Health Clinic back in August of 2010, that’s what – six years ago.  And people are starting picking up on this at the local hospitals because the doctors are driving it.  They see patients coming in who are diabetic, and regular drugs work okay, like metformin and other drugs, but they really needed a little kick to the changing behavior and diet, so in D.C. they are doing a terrific job with the five clinics with the veggie prescription, New York is expanding, hospitals in Boston, VA hospitals.  And then the one that I find particularly interesting is Washington State where the Washington State Department of Health, has worked with Safeway and the city council in Seattle to create a statewide veggie prescription program.  So hopefully, as we look at our Medicaid population and Medicare population, that the department of, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and USDA in the future will look at how farmers become pharmacies and help to diminish this rampaging diabetes we have in this country, for both the veterans, Medicaid, Medicare, and children.

Rodger Wasson: Well that’s exciting.  And you also mentioned a for-profit company that’s a partner, because I think one of the things that most people would suspect is large supermarket chains and even some of the restaurant chains might feel that these programs are competitive, that they are somehow taking business away from them.  But you apparently have examples where that are exactly the opposite case, where large companies, corporations, food companies, processors, and so forth are trying to help.  That’s not what people would normally suspect to happen.

Gus Schumacher: Well I’m very proud of many of these companies. We’re working closely with Kroger, which is the second largest Supermarket chain in the country – that is doing a great job.  As we mentioned, Safeway in Washington State, Price Chopper in Kansas City, are all looking at bringing more customers into their fruit and vegetable operations.  Wegmans has really changed over its stores to feature healthy fresh fruit and vegetables, and they are considered one of the best.  So that’s all worked pretty well.

Rodger Wasson: Well that leaves another little question I have thought about.  There’s so much emphasis on fresh, part of the problem with fresh is it’s got a season and even though hoops and other ways are extending the season, there’s a peak period ripeness.  This is the best time, you know, like fresh tomatoes in the summer.  Are you starting to see that even at the farmers markets there’s more considering, canning, or preserving, to extend the season, whether it’s frozen, or dried, or canned, or jarred, rather than simply fresh as we’ve thought of it in the past?

Gus Schumacher: Yes, of course.  There’s a lot of interest in USDA in providing storage.  I didn’t realize they changed their regulations in the past, to run some of these programs. We’re creating on-farm storage when there’s a surplus of corn or wheat, to help farmers borrow some money to create new storage facilities.  Now the USDA has said we are going to do that also for fruit and vegetables, smaller farms, for creating innovative cold storage to extend the season for a number of crops.  And then there’s a lot of work on food hubs, and all-new, not when you and I worked together, where they are aggregating and then some of these are now, as you said, creating a processing component, like at Fresh Farm Rhode Island, they have a year-round food hub but they also take surpluses in the summer and fall and put them into special farmers markets frozen and value-added products then distribute those during the winter.  I notice big companies like Campbell’s Soup just recently rolled out its farmers market pasta sauce.  Who knew?  And that’s again an example when there’s a supermarket called the farmers market.  So a lot of interest in looking as the consumer demand evolves to eat healthier and eat, when they can find it, foods produced a little bit closer rather than importing from New Zealand or Argentina, maybe adding value in new technologies whether its high tunnels or one of these new urban greenhouses with LED lights for lettuce.  They’re not going to replace areas like Watsonville in the Salinas Valley, but to young people – it’s kind of the new Uber.  People looking at new technologies to produce healthy food, in places we never thought we could grow.

Rodger Wasson: Well you know, Gus, I have to ask you, of all of these exciting things that are going on, what excites you the most?  What gives you the most hope and optimism about, where we’re headed right now?, What’s it look like in a few years? If we continue on this trajectory, you’re going to say I’m really proud that we played a part in getting us to this point.  Where is that point?

Gus Schumacher: I think it’s the healthcare system.  I’ve been visiting with a number of doctors and nurses around the country.  A doctor here in Cape Cod told me that basically we need to do more to provide a different system of diet, because his patients aren’t doing well with their diabetes.  Can we provide a healthier diet and can the farmers participate in that?  As I said earlier, the farmer has a pharmacy.  And then I look at what’s happening in the District of Columbia, where the city council has come up with $1.2 million to show that Medicaid families can get ten dollars a week to buy fruits and vegetables from local farmers to improve their diet.  And the lines are 250 long; so that when it’s affordable local, people do want to improve their health regardless of income.  We’re seeing that here in New England, we’re certainly seeing it in D.C., we’re seeing it like in the Department of Public Health in Washington State, and then in California about 200 groups all in the industry got together and encouraged Governor Brown to sign a legislation providing five million-dollar –for doubling food stamps at more of the farmers markets.  So then you see these things are evolving very rapidly.  And then, finally, I was in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago, and their leadership, even though they are having difficulties, said we are going to put twenty million dollars additional on everybody’s food stamp card in Puerto Rico to buy fruit and vegetables at local farmers markets.  So they put 4% extra on everybody’s card, not diminishing the existing, but it can be only swiped at an EBT machine with a farmer at any of the 52 farmers markets in Puerto Rico.  And those farmers told me quietly that they love the program, they’re going to put it up to sixty million by 2020, and it’s really having an effect on farmers’ income and hopefully on their health.  Then you’ve got the health system that helps public policy nationally, whether it is Medicaid or adding incentives to the food stamp program, 2020 could really begin to have a difference, all that money going to American farmers and improving health across the country.

Rodger Wasson: Well, you know, Gus, every time I have ever talked to you, you have given me something to think about and I’m sure people listening to our podcast are going to say the same thing.  Any spot you would point them towards online for more information, if some of the things we’ve touched on so far and they want to dig a little deeper, where should they look?

Gus Schumacher: Well, they could go to our webpage where we have extensive programs and resources called www.WholesomeWave.org.  .  And also the Famers Market Coalition, at www.FarmersMarketCoalition.org, and both programs have a pretty deep dive on resources, including doubling food stamps, veggie prescriptions, and food hubs.

Rodger Wasson: Well, I’ll tell you, Gus Schumacher, I really appreciate your taking the time to be on Farm to Table Talk and I think many of us are grateful for the leadership you are continuing to provide for food and agriculture in the United States.

Gus Schumacher: Well thank you Rodger.