2013 JBF Leadership Award Winner Gus Schumacher
Emily CarrusEmily Carrus
October 24, 2013
Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of Policy, Wholesome Wave
Gus Schumacher’s agricultural ancestry dates back to the mid-1800s, when his great-grandfather sowed seeds on what is now 72nd Street in Manhattan. His grandfather worked the land in Flushing, Queens, before his father moved the family farm to Boston, where he and his children tilled until 1968. The love of the land is in his blood.
“I want to help people who are hungry get access to the vegetables and fruits that my family has grown over the last 120 years,” says Schumacher. “That’s where my passion comes from.”
He may have flown the coop, so to speak—Schumacher headed off to Harvard, for an education that he funded with profits from the produce that he himself had cultivated—but after graduate school he returned to his roots, embarking on a career dedicated to improving food access and agricultural policies around the globe.
From policy-making in Washington to the distribution of food aid to billions of people worldwide, Schumacher’s path has been a distinguished one. He served as the USDA’s undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, senior agri-lender for the World Bank, administrator for the Foreign Agricultural Service, and Massachusetts Commissioner of Food and Agriculture before co-founding Wholesome Wave in 2008. As the organization’s executive vice president, Schmuacher works to increase the availability and affordability of fresh, locally grown produce in underserved communities.
“It is standard rhetoric now to talk about connecting the 1 percent of those people on the farms and ranches with the other 99 percent, but Gus was singing that song early on,” says Kathleen Merrigan, former United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and a 2012 JBF Leadership Award recipient. “He is one of the foremost champions of farmers’ markets and has always been a big supporter of small and midsize farms,” she says, explaining that his efforts have long bumped up against U.S. agricultural policies that have increasingly supported the needs of large farms over small ones. “But he persevered.”
Indeed he did. In 1980, after meeting a young mother at a local farmers’ market who was picking fallen pears out of the gutter because she could not afford to buy them, Schumacher fought to include farmers’ markets in the WIC Coupon Stamp Program. Decades later, Schumacher was still championing the cause: in 2007 he helped launch the Double Value Coupon Program, giving food stamp recipients extra incentive to buy locally grown produce.
“Just recently, I watched a woman come to a Vermont market with $2.16 of credit to last her eight days,” recalls Schumacher. “The organizer wondered if she should instead take it to her local supermarket and perhaps get something cheaper. But she said, ‘No, I’ll buy the fruits and vegetables because they’re healthy and I need some healthy food.’ That really affected me. It was stunning and very powerful.”
There’s no slowing down for Schumacher. He is working tirelessly to improve technology access for farmers, to promote passage of the Farm Bill by Congress, and to develop a program whereby patients with conditions such as diabetes and obesity could be prescribed free, fresh produce. “I want to see farmers become pharmacies, providing healthy fruits and vegetables that don’t have side effects,” he says.
And then? Schumacher looks forward to eventually retiring on Cape Cod. He has restored his father’s old tractor and—not surprisingly—he plans to do a little farming.
About the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards
The 2013 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. Now in its third year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners were honored at a dinner ceremony that took place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 21 in New York City. For more information, visit jbfleadershipawards.org.