Friday, December 02, 2011

Getting fresh fruits and vegetables to those who need it most

Gus Schumacher is a designer of innovative social systems. He has always understood that the root cause of hunger and poor nutrition is not the supply of food but rather its distribution I'm not suggesting that there are not problems associated with the current industrial food production system. In fact, one of the most effective ways of changing that system is by strengthening local food production and shortening the distance between farmers and consumers. (GW)

From Farmer's Mind to Farmers' Market

Coupon program turns 25

By Diane Baedeker Petit
Farming Magazine
December 2011

August Schumacher Jr. is an idea man. Ask anyone who worked for him when he worked on his family's farm in Lexington, Mass., or when he was Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture, then administrator of the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, and later undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Services, or any of his endeavors in the private and not-for-profit sectors.

Every former staffer will probably have his or her own personal memory of Gus, as he is known to most, spouting an idea and assigning its implementation to the first person he saw: them.

Schumacher has had many ideas over his long career in agriculture, but one particular brainchild turns 25 this year. The seed of an idea that eventually became the Farmers' Market Coupon Program was planted in his brain many years ago when he traveled into Boston to sell at the Field's Corner farmers' market in the city's Dorchester section. Schumacher witnessed inner-city residents clamoring for his locally grown fruits and vegetables, while others were eating less healthy foods, because of a lack of access to fresh produce or limited awareness of its benefits.

As a Bay State farmer, Schumacher was aware of the challenges of farming in the Northeast, not the least of which was profitably marketing his products. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, farmers' markets were taking off in the Boston area. While far from a new idea, urban and suburban farmers' markets were enjoying a renewed popularity. The number of markets was growing, but so were the number of farmers taking advantage of this marketing venue. It was critical that the customer base continue to grow at the same pace.

One year into his five-year stint as commissioner, Schumacher realized that he was in a position to do something about both problems. In 1986, he proposed the idea of the Farmers' Market Coupon Program.

The concept was simple: Low-income consumers would be given $10 worth of coupons that they could redeem for fresh produce at specific farmers' markets. The program was piloted at four markets: Roslindale (a section of Boston), Quincy, Worcester and Holyoke. All four markets were in urban areas. Some $17,000 was allocated, $10,000 of which came from a Chiles Foundation grant and the rest from state government coffers.

Schumacher knew that it would be difficult for his department, the state Department of Food and Agriculture (DFA), to launch the program on its own. DFA's clientele was farmers, not low-income consumers. They needed to find another agency to partner with. That's where the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program came in.

In most states, WIC is administered by the state health department, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Through WIC, the USDA provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and nonbreastfeeding post-partum women, and to infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk.


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