Farming Magazine - December, 2011


From Farmer's Mind to Farmers' Market

Coupon program turns 25
By Diane Baedeker Petit

Emma Keough, farm apprentice at Brookwood Community Farm in Milton, Mass., sells produce at the Roslindale Farmers' Market.
Photos courtesy of Diane Baedeker Petit.

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.

Back in the '80s, Schumacher went to the heads of several state human service agencies, all of which turned him down, before he hit upon WIC. The Massachusetts WIC program director at the time, Mary Kelligrew Kassler, said that she'd do it if WIC wasn't the lead agency, and if they could "just do it quick and dirty, without adding fancy administrative procedures."

Fast-forward 25 years. That quick and dirty farmers' market coupon program launched at just four Massachusetts markets in 1986 has become the federal Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, operating in 45 states, with more than 3,600 participating farmers' markets, 2,770 roadside stands and 18,000 farmers serving just over 2 million participants nationwide with more than $20 million in federal funding and additional state funding.

That's not all. In 1988, the Massachusetts program was extended to elderly consumers and was managed by the state executive office of elder affairs. Today, the federal Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program serves nearly 850,000 low-income senior citizens nationwide at 4,600 farmers' markets and 3,900 roadside stands with an additional $20 million in federal funding. Some 20,000 U.S. farmers participate in the senior program today.

The coupon program concept might sound familiar to historians. It has common conceptual roots with the Food Stamp program, which was also founded in 1939 to solve two problems of its day. It provided hunger relief during the Great Depression and reduced surplus farm commodities.

Now, 72 years after the inception of the Food Stamp Program and 25 years after the start of the Farmers' Market Coupon Program, the need for nutrition assistance and market development continues.

"The Farmers' Market Coupon Program is even more relevant than ever in this economy," said Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (formerly known as the Department of Food and Agriculture), citing the program's role in providing economic development opportunities for Bay State farmers and addressing the health and nutrition needs of the commonwealth's low-income consumers.

Besides going national, the program has evolved in other ways. Technology has had an influence on the coupon program. Unlike the first year when paper coupons were printed at a local copy shop, today, the funds are now dispersed via electronic benefit transfer (EBT), an electronic system that automates the delivery, redemption and reconciliation of issued public assistance benefits. Public assistance recipients access the funds by using a card, much like a credit or debit card.

EBT and farmers' markets has not been an easy fit. Since, according to Soares, most farmers don't have their own equipment for processing the EBT cards, customers must have their card scanned by a farmers' market manager, who issues them script - like a voucher or coupon - that they can use to purchase produce. The market manager later writes each farmer a check for the amount of script redeemed for their products.

Despite the hoops that farmers must jump through to accept EBT purchases, Soares says that the program has been a boon to local farmers. "It's a direct investment in the state's agricultural sector, and I hope it will continue to grow," said Soares.

In August 1986, then Boston City Councillor Thomas Menino, now Mayor of Boston, joined Schumacher and other officials and farmers in a small ceremony at the Roslindale Farmers' Market to announce the first $17,000 in WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers. One of those farmers was Peter MacArthur of MacArthur Farm in Holliston, Mass. It was fitting that the three reunited to mark the 25th anniversary of the program at the same city market.

On a chilly October day - the last market day of the 2011 season - Schumacher, Menino and MacArthur gathered at the now vibrant Roslindale Farmers' Market. A market that began in an alley is now held in Adams Park in the middle of Roslindale Square. Some 15 vendors selling produce, specialty foods and crafts lined the park's walkways while music blared and kids clapped as a clown performed on a unicycle.

Peter MacArthur was the first farmer to sell at the Roslindale Market and the first farmer to accept farmers' market coupons. A quarter century later, he's still selling at the market, as well as other farmers' markets and his own farmstand. MacArthur credits his farm's economic viability to Schumacher.

"Without the coupon program, I wouldn't have been successful," said MacArthur, explaining that many residents were unaware of the new farmers' markets cropping up around the city. "If they didn't have money, they could go to WIC and get coupons to spend at the market."

"Without it, I wouldn't have been as profitable. And because of that, I can employ more people today. I can send people into farmers' markets and I don't have to be there," said MacArthur, adding that his daughter Katie goes to many of the markets for him.

"It brings fresh fruits and vegetables to the folks in the neighborhoods, and it creates jobs for the farmers of Massachusetts," said Mayor Menino. "Today we have 20 farmers' markets in the city of Boston, and Roslindale is the longest [running] one at 25 years. It's because of Gus Schumacher that we have this in our city."

Menino cited several reasons why farmers' markets and the coupon program are important to Boston, including access to reasonably priced foods and providing a gathering spot that builds strong neighborhoods. On average, 2,500 people come to the Roslindale farmers' market on a Saturday.

"It's keeping Boston a healthy city," said Menino. "That's a change for the better over the past 25 years."

More recently, several programs have spun off the original farmers' market coupon program idea.

The Food Project and the city of Boston sponsor the Boston Bounty Bucks program, a dual effort to give Boston residents access to farm products available at city farmers' markets and to strengthen the economy of local farmers. More than 82,000 Boston residents that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can use their benefits at over 20 participating farmers' markets, and their purchases are matched up to $10.

Another organization called Wholesome Wave, provides federal food assistance benefit recipients in 25 states the incentives to shop at farmers markets. Wholesome Wave's two programs are benefiting over 250 markets and 1,700 participating farmers.

Wholesome Wave's Double Value Coupon Program uses private donations to double the value of federal food assistance benefits when spent at farmers' markets. Farmers benefit by being introduced to new shoppers with considerable buying power. The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program provides doctors and clinicians with financial resources to prescribe enough fruits and vegetables for at-risk families to increase their consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables daily.

Any guess who Wholesome Wave's executive vice president of policy is? That's right, Schumacher, still working daily to ensure that his vision of public policy that connects farmers in need of profitable markets with people in need of fresh fruits and vegetables lives on.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.