by Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave, guest contributor
Gus Schumacher was a leader in the Good Food movement. He was a fourth-generation produce grower and a vendor at (and advocate for) farmers markets. He made his greatest mark as a pioneering innovator in efforts to improve access to healthy local food for lower-income and older Americans — as an official for the state of Massachusetts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later as a co-founder of Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based non-profit best known for its program to double the dollar amount of healthy food that individuals can purchase using federal food assistance benefits.
Schumacher died Sept. 24 at age 77. He is widely mourned among those engaged in building a better food system, including Michel Nischan, the chef-activist who is CEO and a co-founder of Wholesome Wave. He wrote the remembrance below that was originally published on Wholesome Wave’s website.
It is with deep sadness that we share the news that Gus Schumacher, Co-Founder & Founding Board Chair of Wholesome Wave, passed unexpectedly of heart failure last night. The good food movement, the agricultural sector, and the world at large has lost one of the most magnificent advocates ever known. Gus leaves an immeasurable legacy: his vision and work improved the lives of untold numbers of farmers and farms of all sizes, and eaters of all incomes. The world is a far better place because of him.
Gus had farmers markets in his DNA. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all farmed in New York City and sold what they grew at city markets. Gus’s dad moved to Massachusetts and became one of the largest parsnip growers in the Commonwealth. Gus himself grew up on a farm in Lexington.
Gus’s passion for food justice was awakened one August afternoon in 1980. As Gus was loading up his brother’s truck at the end of the farmers market in Dorchester, a box of Bosc pears fell off the truck and broke apart, scattering the fruit into the gutter. Two young boys and their mother ran over and began picking them up. She explained that she was divorced, on food stamps, and unable to afford fresh fruits and vegetables for her kids. His heart broke, and his life’s work began.
He was appointed agriculture commissioner in Massachusetts by Governor Michael Dukakis, and he immediately got to work to help increase affordable access to fruits and vegetables. He realized he could provide support through the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Infants and Children (WIC), and began conspiring to change how federal food assistance worked.
Gus raised $17,000 from the state and the Chiles Foundation to create a Massachusetts pilot program that gave $10 worth of produce coupons to WIC recipients to use at area farmers markets. It was a hit, and soon spread to other states. In 1992, Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Chet Atkins, of Massachusetts, authorized the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program into the federal budget, and today it is a almost a $6 billion program that allows every WIC mother and child to get vouchers for fresh produce at farmers markets and supermarkets.
Gus, meanwhile, had moved on to Washington to work for the World Bank and in 1995, was appointed administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service at USDA. In 1997 he became U.S. Undersecretary for Farm, Foreign, and Agricultural Services in the Clinton Administration, and he wanted to try to install the same program for low-income seniors at the federal level.
Gus found that the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act of 1935’s (CCC) stated purpose was the “promotion and marketing of American agricultural products,” not just large commodity crops.
Gus told the USDA lawyers that he wanted to create a market nutrition program for seniors using the authority of the CCC. “They looked at me like I just jumped off the fifth floor,” he recalled. “They said, no, that’s not normal. I said, guys, it doesn’t say wheat, corn, and cotton. ‘Just write me a memo so I don’t get indicted.’” So they did. (Gus saved that original memo stating that they could do this without changing any laws.) In 2000, the program began with $10 million in funding, and is now funded at $22 million annually.
The WIC and Seniors Farmers Market Programs were the foundation upon which we would build Wholesome Wave and our signature SNAP-matching program. But the process also taught Gus something that would be key to Wholesome Wave’s success: whenever possible, leverage existing authority to make change rather than trying to convince lawmakers to do your bidding.
Closing the Gap: Building Access and Affordability with Incentives
In 2007, the American Farmland Trust held a conference at the Westport Playhouse. Its goal was to invite new stakeholders — chefs, non-profits, consumers, and environmental groups — to re-envision American agricultural policy, and work together to change it. Dan Imhoff, the author of “Food Fight,” a guide to the farm bill, presented his layman’s take on food policy.
This presentation had a huge impact. During his talk, he flashed a slide of a chart that showed how the USDA allocated a U.S. tax dollar. While environmentalists argued endlessly over the $8.5 billion spent on conservation, the biggest chunk of the farm bill—$45 billion, or 48 percent—went to food stamps.
“At $45 billion, that’s the money we should be chasing,” I said.
That night, Gus and I brainstormed about how to channel SNAP spending toward fresh, local food.
Gus and I soon realized that it might be possible to harness federal money if they modeled a program on the WIC and Seniors fruit and vegetable Farmers Market Nutrition Program approach. The foundation of Wholesome Wave’s belief in affordability and access was born.
The case for incentives
Gus and I conceived of a program that would match SNAP benefits spent on fresh fruits and vegetables dollar for dollar. Innovative pilot programs in New York City, Lynn, Massachusetts, and Takoma Park, Maryland, already had experimented with such incentives. In New York, HealthBucks gave an extra $4 to shoppers who spent $10; the Maryland Crossroads Market Fresh Checks program doubled the value of SNAP benefits up to $15. (Gus and his colleague John Hyde got the Crossroads farmers market up and running with a $10,000 grant from the National Watermelon Association.)
Incentive programs had other benefits. If SNAP recipients spent their money at farmers markets, it would support small farmers, rather than big food manufacturers. SNAP and similar forms of aid were among the most effective ways to stimulate the economy—something that was critical in 2008, the depths of the economic crisis.
If such incentives worked, it would prove that low-income families weren’t choosing junk food because they preferred it, as many believed. It was because fresh food was financially out of reach.
The launch of Wholesome Wave’s SNAP-Matching Program
Wholesome Wave’s SNAP-matching program (originally called the Double Value Coupon Program) began in 2007 and provided matching value for every SNAP dollar spent on produce at farmers markets. By 2008 the program was in five states.
It targeted low-income areas with little access to affordable fruits and vegetables. Holyoke was a case in point. The western Massachusetts city was one of the poorest in the country with high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. But with a $10,000 grant from Wholesome Wave, SNAP sales jumped 290 percent in the fall of 2008. On the first day the matching funds became available at the City Heights market in San Diego, SNAP sales more than doubled. (In subsequent weeks, the line to receive doubling tokens formed at 7:30 a.m., and the available funds were exhausted by 9:30 a.m., just 30 minutes after the market opened.)
Incentives Took Root
SNAP incentives grew nationwide. Word of its success had spread through the food-reform communities. In late 2008, for example, the Michigan-based Fair Food Network, with a three-year grant from Wholesome Wave and support from other foundations, launched its own six-week pilot program, Double Up Food Bucks, at five markets in Detroit. In California, non-profit Roots of Change, with grant writing assistance from Gus for $1,500,000 for marketing support of incentives, launched a program called Market Match. The simultaneous appearance – and success – of double-your-money markets drew national media and grant-makers’ attention and laid the foundation for rapid expansion. By 2009, Wholesome Wave granted $330,000, up from just $38,000 the year before, to shoppers at 40 farmers markets in 10 states plus the District of Columbia.
Gus tackled bureaucracy
There was one serious obstacle to the growth of incentive programs. In the 1990s, the government had converted food-stamp benefits from paper coupons to debit-style cards called Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT). The move was designed to eliminate stigma for beneficiaries who felt ashamed of accepting government assistance. But there was an unintended consequence: Unlike paper vouchers, the EBT cards could not be used at many farmers markets; most lacked the equipment to process EBT purchases. By 2004, SNAP spending at farmers markets had plummeted to $2 million annually, from $82 million in 1990.
In order to accept electronic benefits, a retailer — whether it was a grocery store or a farmers market — needed authorization from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). This FNS number was designed to prevent fraud. To obtain an FNS number, retailers had to sign contracts with dire consequences in the event of potential fraud.
To its credit, the program worked. SNAP fraud averaged as little as 1 percent, far below other USDA programs. Unfortunately, the onerousness of the contract requirements, coupled with other significant bureaucratic challenges, discouraged farmers markets from participating.
Farmers markets didn’t sell anything but fresh food, but they still needed an FNS number to accept SNAP benefits – and two USDA exemptions. This was well-intentioned. It aimed to prevent a company capturing federal money by offering discounts, or a free six-pack of beer, to food-stamp recipients. The Farmers Market Alternative Currency Waiver allowed markets to give out the tokens that beneficiaries used to pay farmers — and made them liable for any fraud committed.
Obtaining the waivers was burdensome paperwork for each market. Before Wholesome Wave launched in 2007, the USDA had only issued one incentives waiver to the Takoma Park Crossroads market (after manager John Hyde, a former political reporter for the Des Moines Register, threatened to tell the press that the agency was preventing low-income families from buying fresh food.)
Gus immediately began to look for ways to mitigate the administrative burdens to offer SNAP incentives. His first call was to Andrea Gold, the director of the USDA’s SNAP Benefit Redemption Division. Using the data they had collected, Gus and I highlighted the success of the program, especially the benefits to consumers and farmers. Sensitive to their concerns, Gold asked her staff to closely review whether the program was working. In 2009, the agency noted a growing number of applications, all for the same two-for-one incentives at farmers markets. It also concluded that agency staff wasn’t reviewing or analyzing the data it required of farmers markets as closely as it had envisioned. In 2010, the agency issued a blanket waiver for SNAP incentives and the use of wooden tokens or scrip at farmers markets.
Incentives program exploded. In 2011, Wholesome Wave raised $1.89 million to grant as matching money and its network had grown to more than 200 farmers markets and more than 50 community-based organizations. The next year, Wholesome Wave funding jumped to $2.38 million for 306 markets and 54 partners in 24 states and D.C. It’s now grown to reach over a half a million Americans annually, across 48 states at more than 1400 locations.
Gus’s impact on low-income consumers’ ability to not only afford, but buy and consume fruits and vegetables is undeniable. His legacy will not be forgotten.
Our thanks to Jane Black for her enormous work on this story.
To respect the privacy of the Schumacher family, please direct any phone calls to our office at 203-226-1112. We will share condolences with the family so that they can reach out at the appropriate time.