Gus Schumacher went to Hamersley’s Bistro for dinner 25 years ago — almost to the day — and while sitting at dinner, he pulled a beautiful, bright, vine-ripened tomato out of a brown bag. He asked for a plate, olive oil, and serrated knife. Then he made a salad.
Chef-owner Gordon Hamersley, who was buying produce from California, was curious where the plump red fruit was grown. “Twenty minutes from your door,” said Schumacher, grinning. Thus, Hamersley says, was born the local farm-to-table movement.
At the time, Schumacher, then commissioner of agriculture for the state, pulled similar stunts at restaurants all over town, asking chefs if they knew farmers they could buy from, scolding breakfast spots for offering British jams when they could buy local, connecting restaurateurs to growers, and getting farmers to accept coupons provided to low-income residents. Last week, the James Beard Foundation announced that Schumacher, 73, is receiving a Leadership Award in October for “his lifelong efforts to improve access to fresh local food in underserved communities.” Four other national advocates are also being honored.
Uniting consumers with farmers has been Schumacher’s life commitment. As a result, farms have been saved and consumers have expanded access to healthy food. Under Governor Michael Dukakis, Schumacher expanded Boston’s fledgling markets into a statewide effort, and initiated market coupon programs for seniors and low-income families with children. He grew those programs nationally while an agricultural undersecretary for President Clinton.
As for the James Beard award, says Greg Watson, commissioner of Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, who worked with Schumacher, “I can’t think of anyone more deserving.” Watson describes Schumacher as “a practical visionary.” He says the former commissioner was two steps ahead of everyone. “He makes sure that farmers and agriculture remain viable to increasing access to food, and he’s very sensitive to affordability for the consumer.”
Adds Hamersley, “There are a lot of people with big mouths who talk a big game and Gus is the opposite. He doesn’t say much but he accomplishes a lot.”
Schumacher and four food visionaries will be honored in October at the James Beard Foundation annual food conference in New York City. The other recipients of this year’s leadership awards are Hal Hamilton, founder and co-director of Sustainable Food Laboratory; Cynthia Hayes, executive director of the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network; Marion Nestle, a New York University professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and the Department of Sociology; and Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Schumacher was born into a Lexington farm that his father relocated from New York City. Educated at Harvard and London School of Economics, he worked on agriculture-related initiatives for nearly 30 years at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. He is now executive vice president and cofounder of the nonprofit Wholesome Wave in Bridgeport, Conn., which helps community groups find affordable fresh food.
While honored by the New York-based Beard Foundation, Schumacher instead touts efforts at Wholesome Wave, and in raising awareness of National Farmers Market Week, which started on Aug. 3 and ends Aug. 10. “Americans meet 50,000 farmers at 8,000 farmers’ markets, and buy fresh food and vegetables,” he says. “There is interaction. There is linkage to food.”
Wholesome Wave has two major initiatives: the Double Value Coupon Program, begun in 2008, which allows recipients to double the value of their federal food benefits at farmers’ markets; and the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program at two New York City hospitals, in which doctors prescribe farmers’ market vouchers for patients with diabetes or obesity problems.
Schumacher, who lives most of the year in Washington, D.C., also has a home in Orleans. As he did when he was commissioner, he visits farmers’ markets regularly and takes pride in their growth. There are currently 289 markets registered in the state, according to a USDA report released on Aug. 3 (see related story, Page 14). Schumacher notes the strongest growth markets in Massachusetts are Mattapan, Dudley Square, Roslindale, Springfield, Holyoke, and Cape Cod.
“Who would know that would happen when Greg [Watson] and Mayor Menino and I started all this?,” asks Schmuacher. “Now everyone can buy vegetables — not just in Brookline and Newton.”
By Schumacher’s side is Susan, who was his date at Hamersley’s Bistro all those years ago and was won over by his salad — and his approach.
“I tell that tomato story all the time because it’s indicative of how the farm-to-table movement is not new,” Hamersley says. “Gus was instrumental in bringing two seemingly obvious groups together who never talked to each other: chefs and farmers. He’s basically the architect of chefs featuring locally grown produce. As always, there was a team of people with him, but he was sitting in the chair.”