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Former USDA Undersecretary honored for local food work

In the Netflix television drama House of Cards, Congressman Frank Underwood manipulates people for his own personal and political gain. In the real world of Washington, D.C., one-time Undersecretary of Agriculture Gus Schumacher pulled the levers of power to help low-income Americans buy nutritious food from local farmers.

Schumacher has often worked behind the scenes, and he still is, as executive vice president of policy for the nonprofit group, Wholesome Wave. When he became Undersecretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services in 1997, he wanted to expand a pilot program for senior citizens that provided vouchers to low-income seniors to use at farmers markets. He discovered that, in his role as head of the Commodity Credit Corporation, his authority to increase domestic consumption of agricultural commodities allowed him to expand the program for seniors to a national one. It later became part of the farm bill.

On October 21, the James Beard Foundation, which recognizes the nation's best chefs, will also give a Leadership Award in New York City to Schumacher for "his lifelong efforts to improve access to fresh local food in underserved communities."

The farmers market program for seniors is just one example of Schumacher's work to bring consumers and farmers together. As Commissioner of Agriculture for Massachusetts from 1985 to 1990, he expanded the number of farmers markets in the state from 34 to 88. And at a time when the number of farms nationwide fell by 200,000, farms in Massachusetts grew in number, from 5,400 to 6,800.

Schumacher comes from three generations of farmers who sold food and produce in and near New York City and in Massachusetts. His father grew vegetables in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Even after working decades to promote the sale of healthy, local foods, Schumacher is surprised at the revival and growth of farmers markets. The U.S. now has more than 8,000 local markets, a dramatic increase from perhaps 700 in 1940.

"This is pure capitalism. There's very little [government] support for this," he says.

And, although most farmers markets now accept the EBT cards used by recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, the amount spent there "is not even pencil dust," Schumacher says -- about $16 million out of some $75 billion a year.

Much of the direct-to-consumer agricultural sales are high value and upscale. One conservative estimate of farm sales volume of organic, direct, and local foods showed that sector of the agricultural economy pulling ahead of the combined value of cotton and rice in 2007, Schumacher says. The organic, direct, and local sales brought in $8 billion, compared to $7 billion for cotton and rice.

When he led the Massachusetts agriculture department, Schumacher started pilot programs to help low-income mothers and seniors buy farmers market produce. Today, the nonprofit group, Wholesome Wave, which Schumacher helped start, aims to make nutritious food more affordable for low-income Americans. It has raised private funds for its Double Value Coupon Program, which recipients of federal nutrition programs can use to increase their buying power at farmers markets, food stands, and community supported agriculture farms. Wholesome Wave has also started a Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program that allows health care providers to write prescriptions for healthy foods sold at farmers markets. It's designed for overweight children at risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. The program gives a small boost -- about a dollar a day -- to buy healthy foods and provides nutrition counseling. The results are tracked. In the first year, 2011, 38% of the low-income participants reduced their body mass index.

Whether the money is public or private, Schumacher thinks it's far better to help low-income Americans buy fresh fruits and vegetables than cola and junk food at supermarkets.

"I want all this money to go to farmers, who really work hard," Schumacher says.

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