By Todd Post
Gus Schumacher, co-founder of Wholesome Wave, and former administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, passed away in late September at the age of 77.
For anyone who shops at one of the thousands of farmers’ markets around the country, Gus should be thought of as your man on Capitol Hill, making sure that support for farmers’ markets made it into the farm bill.
Gus probably did as much as anyone to help families who use SNAP or WIC benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. By helping people who participated in the federal nutrition programs, he saw an opportunity to help small farmers, who are mostly left out of the farm bill. Farmers’ markets were the ideal vehicle for the merger of both objectives.
Wholesome Wave has a wonderful tribute to Gus on its website. I want to share how Gus helped Bread for the World Institute. While I was working on the 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect, I contacted Gus because I was interested in writing about how nutrition programs could take bigger steps to improve the nutritional quality of the foods available to recipients.
I was familiar with Wholesome Wave because I covered some of the work they were doing at farmers’ markets when I was writing an earlier Hunger Report. I was at a market in Southwest Virginia and noticed a volunteer at a stand near the entrance who was using a wireless device to swipe SNAP cards and then hand over some tokens to customers. The tokens doubled the value of SNAP resources up to $20. These additional resources were paid for by Wholesome Wave in an effort to test the effectiveness of incentives.
I had a chance to talk with one of the customers who were using the tokens. She was a young mother of a preschool-age boy. They had fled the woman’s abusive boyfriend, her son’s father, and were homeless or couch-surfing. They relied on SNAP because she was in college and couldn’t work full time. The tokens extended the length of time she and her son could eat well until closer to the time their SNAP benefits were replenished at the beginning of the next month. Most families on SNAP must buy the cheapest foods available towards the end of the month, and then skimp even on those. It’s very difficult to make the typical SNAP benefit last an entire month.
Gus couldn’t have been happier to help with the 2016 Hunger Report. The report was attempting to show how investments in the federal nutrition programs could save the government money by reducing healthcare costs associated with diet-related illnesses. He put me in touch with his staff members who were more involved in the research on this. Gus helped Bread for the World Institute with the report in other ways. For example, he helped with a video we made for the launch of the report by suggesting customers at one of the farmers’ markets with a Wholesome Wave SNAP-matching program who might want to be on camera.
We were invited to present the video at Wholesome Wave’s annual conference that year.
At our first meeting, I described to him my experience at the farmers’ market in Southwest Virginia, wanting to convey how Wholesome Wave was helping this mother and her son, and how it impressed me. Gus told me about an experience he had had decades earlier and how it shaped what he wanted to accomplish with Wholesome Wave.
At that time, he would sometimes help his brother who was a farmer and sold at a farmers’ market in Massachusetts. One day they were loading the truck up after the market closed. A box of pears fell off the truck and some of the fruit broke open and couldn’t be salvaged. A woman standing nearby saw this and came over to ask if she could take the pears that were scattered on the ground to feed her children. She was on SNAP, then known as the Food Stamp Program, and couldn’t afford the cost of fresh pears.
I don’t know if it felt like déjà vu to Gus to hear me talk about the woman I met in Virginia. It was clear that my story was similar to millions of other such incidents, and I could only imagine how many he’d heard over the years.
Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.