Best known as "Bunk" from the TV series "The Wire," Wendell Pierce is now working to rebuild his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park, one of New Orleans' first middle-class African American communities.
Weekly farmers’ markets were once confined to the wealthier neighborhoods of the Washington area. But today local farmers are plying their wares in long-neglected suburban strip malls and urban “food deserts,” thanks to help from nonprofits and government grants. As the season for fresh local produce winds down, we peruse the growing number of farmers’ markets across the region and examine the economics of bringing food from field to fork.
- John Gloster President, Ward 8 Farmer's Market Cooperative
- Robert Schubert Executive Director, Columbia Heights Community Marketplace
- Gus Schumacher Vice President of Policy, Wholesome Wave Foundation; Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ( 1997-2001)
- Dan Charles Food and Agriculture correspondent, NPR
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Food Wednesday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was a novel idea to support farmers and make fresh produce affordable. Five years ago a farmers' market in Tacoma Park, Md. began a pilot program for families on food stamps. The market would match the dollar value of so-called SNAP benefits, effectively doubling the purchasing power for low-income shoppers who bought fresh vegetables and produce. It was a relatively simple and pragmatic idea.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFarmers got new customers, lower-income families got a new source of healthy local food, but it flew in the face of government regulations and many basic assumptions about local food and local farmers. Over the last five years that thinking has begun to shift. Weekly farmers' markets are now sprouting up in urban food deserts and old abandoned suburban strip malls and many neighborhoods now view markets as a driver of economic development.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Dan Charles. He is food and agriculture correspondent with NPR. He's also the author of several books including, "Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber," and "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food.” Dan Charles recently crisscrossed the Washington region to explore the rapidly evolving farmer's market scene here. Dan Charles, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAN CHARLESNice to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Gus Schumacher. He is executive vice president of policy with Wholesome Wave Foundation. he was the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1997 to 2001. Gus Schumacher, thank you for joining us.
MR. GUS SCHUMACHERGreat to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us is John Gloster. He is president of the Ward 8 Farmers' Market Cooperative. John Gloster, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN GLOSTERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conservation, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have a favorite local farmers' market? How has it changed over the years? Have you noticed shifts in who is buying and selling? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan, you cover the national agriculture and farming beat for NPR, but you live and work right here in Washington. And in many ways our hometown is an interesting study in how farmers' markets are changing.
NNAMDIYou recently embarked on a sort of local foodie safari across the Washington region, hitting up farmer's markets in different neighborhoods. What did you find?
CHARLESWell, yeah, I went from northwest to southeast really in one day. And that was intentional. I mean there's all this interest in local food and efforts to promote farmers' markets in different parts of the city. And the farmers' markets I visited, where I went from oldest to youngest probably, and in terms of demographics of the neighborhoods I pulled up, you know, census data on these different neighborhoods, the three that I visited.
CHARLESAnd yeah, they're dramatically different, you know. From a median income of $170,000 in the, you know, the zip code in upper northwest that I visited to, as I recall, down around $30,000 a year right along the southeastern border of the district, Minnesota Avenue in Anacostia. But, you know, there was a lot of things that were the same. You know, you talk to customers and they were saying the same things. They were all saying, well, you like to know where your food comes from.
CHARLESAnd everybody likes organic now don’t they? Although, you know, honestly I don't know for sure--John would know better--whether the food on sale at the Anacostia market was in fact organic. But, you know…
NNAMDIThat's a conversation we'll be having…
NNAMDI…later on in this discussion. But people were saying, you say, that they went there for the same reasons because A, they like to know where their food is coming from.
CHARLESThat's what they said. They like it fresh. They like it from the farmer.
NNAMDIGus, today many chefs and home cooks sing the praises of local produce and building connections with small farmers, but those ideas often really only appeal to a smaller subset of the population who can afford to spend $3 or $4 on a heirloom tomato. Wholesome Wave has been experimenting with ways to make this kind of produce more accessible and desirable to lower-income Americans. Tell us about the experiment that began in 2007 at the Tacoma Park Farmers' Market which, by the way, is my home farmers' market.
SCHUMACHEROh, great. About five years ago, John Hide, who unfortunately had passed way, he was the political reporter for the Des Moines Register and he was a great friend and he said, you know, we should test it. You know, that why don't we look at whether we provide nutrition incentives for all. Make it accessible and affordable for all. And then see if we doubled food stamps or basically cut them in half, cut the cost of fresh food and vegetables in half, would people come to this market?
SCHUMACHERSo in 2008 and provided a little more money and then Wholesome Wave was founded with a little bit of money from Paul Newman's daughter, Nell and her team. So we started this pretty aggressively at Crossroads. We were stunned. I was there at the board meeting last night. There are 5,000 people on food stamps and who had come to that market so far this year. The farmers…
NNAMDIHow exactly does that work?
SCHUMACHERWell, I think it all went back to looking at the change in technology. Now, you can do wireless food stamps at farmers' markets. So we provided money, some funds, to the farmers' markets to put a wireless machine in and then you bring your food stamp card, and whether it's Virginia, central Virginia or D.C. or Maryland…
NNAMDIAnd you get twice the value of your food stamp card?
SCHUMACHERYou swipe the card and for $10 and we provide $20 in tokens. And you can exchange them for fruits and vegetables at any of the fresh food and vegetable farmers at that Crossroads and now at 15 markets here in D.C. and 4 or 5 markets in Virginia. So it's really exploded. I'm really amazed how fast people have reacted, as Dan said, that when it's accessible, when it's affordable people flock in. And we're seeing this throughout the district.
SCHUMACHERI was also amazed that there were just a few markets 10 or 15 years ago. This year there are 41 farmers' markets in D.C. It's not just in Northwest, Dan. You pointed out it's in Columbia Heights and it's in Southwest, it's all over the city.
NNAMDINow that you're making it available for people who get food stamps, I'd like to ask our listeners, do traditional farmers' market and the local food movement, in your view, have a class problem? 800-433-8850. John Gloster, the Ward 8 Farmers' Market has been running for about 14 years now. How did it get started?
GLOSTERWell, it actually happened quite by accident. What happened is that the last remaining, at that time, supermarket in the entire Ward closed. And it was a Safeway on Milwaukee Place. And at that time there were 70,000 people or so in the Ward without any direct access to regular healthy food options, other than corner stores. So it started off as an attempt to lobby the government to try and do something about it, get another store and then evolved as that just sort of kind of wasn't happening, to do something self-empowering.
GLOSTERAnd so one of the ANC commissioners who was part of the committee that we started suggested a farmers market. The next thing you know we're in the farmers' market business.
NNAMDIBut it started out with your participation in the Statehood Green Party, it's my understanding.
GLOSTERIt sure did. At that time I was the chair of the Statehood Green Party and it was a little project of ours. And the idea was to start it, get it going and then allow the community to take it over, which happened very quickly. We got a lot of participation from almost every single ANC commissioner in the Ward at that time, but it's always been a homegrown market and that is really counter to the perception that all of these markets have to be gentrifying in origin or in results.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about where it's located and what can people expect to find when they come to the market?
GLOSTEROkay. Well, we do serve the Ward 8 community as our name would suggest, the Ward 8 Farmers' Market. And we are located now--we've moved a couple times over the years. Our original location, if you will, or our central location is the Ark, which is located at 1901 Mississippi Avenue. But we, this year, with the help from the deputy mayor for planning and economic development in D.C., located a new location which is the Chapel Gate of St. Elizabeth's. And so we've started that this summer.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. Let's go to Valerie in Alexandria, Va. Valerie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VALERIEThank you, Kojo. Long time listener, first time caller.
NNAMDIThanks for calling.
VALERIEYou're welcome. I really just wanted to say hello to Gus Schumacher. I work several years ago with Gus and Gus actually took me to my very first farmers' market at RFK Stadium many years ago. I don't know if he would recall that day, but I certainly remember it. And, Gus, I'm glad to see that you're still in the business.
NNAMDIWell, Valerie, is that a Barbadian accent that I hear?
VALERIEYes, it is, absolutely.
SCHUMACHERWell, Valerie, I went down to RFK. You know, Thornell Page and I helped to get that started. I met with Mildred Brooks in 1978, '79 and bless her soul, she was wonderful and she's passed away, but she's a great heroine of mine. But those farmers now, there's a whole bunch of new farmers from central Virginia. And do you still go to the guy named Filiberto--he's a farmer--Filiberto Ochoa? And he has absolutely spectacular greens down--seven kinds of different greens picked the day before and people just flock into Filiberto's farm.
SCHUMACHERIt's just great.
NNAMDIValerie, thank you so much your call. You remind us that Gus was an economist at the World Bank and then you were an Under Secretary of Agriculture and then you got into the farmers' market business. Tell us about that progression.
SCHUMACHERWell, Thornell and I, we were kind of good friends. So he and I kind of worked a lot on this issue back in the '70s when I was at the bank, just to kind of do something on the weekends to kind of reach out to the neighborhood. But very briefly, when I was--we're from four or five generation family farmers. My brother had a farm in Massachusetts. And I'd fly up on the weekends and take the truck into the market.
SCHUMACHERAnd one day I was in Dorchester in Fields Corner and the box of pears fell apart and I was packing it up and went into the gutter. And I sad, well, darn, there's $40 worth of Bosc pears. My brother's not going to be happy. So I went to get a shovel to pick them up. When I came back there was a woman with two children picking the pears out of the gutter. And I said, oh, that's not good, not right. So I asked her--she thought I was going to arrest her.
SCHUMACHERI said, no, no. Why are you picking my brother's Bosc pears out of the Dorchester gutter? She said I was on food stamps. This is 1980 and I can't afford to buy fruit for my boys. So when I was commissioner, I remembered that and I went to talk to some of the folks at tough nutrition school. And they said it's too difficult for food stamps at that time, but let's do it with WIC. We can double--we can add farmers' market coupons for WIC.
SCHUMACHERAnd so we did that and that went very, very well. And now we look at the numbers, it's about $400 to $500 million dollars in WIC farmers' market coupons and WIC cash value vouchers. So that kind of got us into the SNAP program. And that's when John Hyde, as I said earlier, we tried to figure out how to convince USDA to give a waiver and start that program. So it's worked well and I think John, you've seen it down at Ward and Dan, you've seen it in some of your program. So it's kind of working well.
NNAMDIWell, Dan, food stamps or SNAP benefits are administered by the USDA Department of Agriculture, funded by the Farm Bill, a $500 billion law, which has been held up recently in Washington. How has the USDA's approach to farmers' markets changed in recent years?
CHARLESWell, it's not something that I've covered a lot over the years, so I actually think Gus is probably better situated to answer that question. They had been promoting it. They've been promoting sort of money for farmers' markets and farmers' markets generally in recent years, wouldn't you say?
SCHUMACHERYes. In fact they just announced the last couple weeks the farmers' market promotion program, many grants to promote this. They now are providing free EBT machines. You know, when John and I started this they were a little grouchy to get started but now they've come around wonderfully. And so all farmers' markets who want one can get a free machine. And then, John, when -- if the D.C. city councils come through with 50,000 for next year, if the farm bill would pass -- if the farm bill would pass there could be as much as $20 million to go to kind of support your programs, John, to match what the D.C. city council -- so there's a lot at stake here with the farm bill.
SCHUMACHERThey're holding it up. It's sad. It's much more than cotton and soy beans. It's how to make people healthier, and we can talk about some of the fruit and vegetable impact, what you see at your markets.
NNAMDIIf and when it finally passes, that's the kind of impact it will have on farmers' markets. We've got to take a short break. When we come back we will continue our conversation on the economics, if you will, of farmers' markets. But if you'd like to join the conversation call us at 800-433-8850, send email to email@example.com, send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Should farmers' markets and nonprofits subsidize access to local produce? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the economics of farmers' markets where we invite your calls at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Dan Charles. He is food and agriculture correspond with NPR and also the author of several books including "Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Harbor" and "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food." He recently crisscrossed the Washington region to explore the rapidly evolving farmers' market scene. Dan also contributes to the Salt blog, the food-focused blog on NPR.org.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is John Gloster, president of the Ward 8 Farmers' Market Cooperative and Gus Schumacher, vice -- executive vice-president of policy with Wholesome Wave Foundation. He was under secretary of agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services from 1997 to 2001. Again, you can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDan, a lot of the iconic urban farmers' markets around D.C. sell beautiful tomatoes and mushrooms and fresh eggs that often come with a hefty price tag, but there's always been a slightly different economic model for suburban farmers' markets. And the suburb farmers' markets are places where we can buy produce more cheaply, including the slightly bruised tomatoes that taste just fine but don't look so hot. Does that tend to be the model that we're seeing for the urban kind of frontier markets now?
CHARLESI think the urban markets are kind of a different beast. I mean, I'm personally really interested in sort of the change in the image of farmers' markets over the years in different places because -- so I grew up in the country. And you did pick your own or you went to the farm stand because that was cheap, right? You were cutting out the middle man and that's where you get the good deal.
CHARLESIn the cities we had these historic markets, right. You had Central Market a long time ago. We still have Eastern Market, O Street Market. That was, you know, like a historic thing before the supermarkets took over. But now, you know, the farmers' markets, the -- sort of the recent wave, I still think, you know, you have to call them kinda boutique markets. I mean, they are not selling the quantity of food that Safeway is. I think, you know, we should recognize that.
CHARLESSo there's something else going on that people -- many people are willing to pay a little extra for when they go to the farmers' markets. And I think that is an urban, and also kind of a suburban phenomenon. You know, how that develops? I think we still have to see.
NNAMDIJoining -- you wanted to say, John?
GLOSTERYeah, I just wanted to chime in there. I agree basically with what Dan just said. I will add to it however that in our market at least, which has been going for such a long time, 14 seasons, yeah, and we're seeing a growing percentage of the people, the ones who have been with us year after year increasing the amount that they purchase from us, whereas they might have originally come in and bought a couple tomatoes and a cucumber and left. And now they leave with bags full of produce.
GLOSTERAnd of course a lot of that is because for those who it was not affordable before now seem to be affordable to invest in their health in this way. That's -- the wheels are greased by having the Wholesome Wave bonus bucks which, you know, we partner with Wholesome Wave and they have been able to provide us as being the first and only Ward 8 market that say would offer that. Or actually we're the only Ward 8 farmers' market period.
GLOSTERBut I think to answer Kojo, you know, we intentionally have tried not to be the sort of cut rate market, the bruised tomato market because for one thing in Ward 8 people are very sensitive towards people coming into the community and giving them second grade product. And the Safeway that we used to have in Ward 8 that closed and left us stranded, before they left us stranded they effectively left us stranded anyway because it was terrible. The produce all seemed to come from off the shelves somewhere else in the city after having sat there for a week.
GLOSTERSo we try and get first rate produce and we do a lot of education to people to help them understand why they need to invest in their health, and why even though it's cheaper per calorie to buy processed foods, that they are going to perform better and it's going to increase the -- you know, their lifestyle in the long run by eating healthy. And they'll live longer too.
NNAMDIWell, Gus Schumacher, a lot of people believe that we're in the midst of a public health crisis in this country, that poor people are too often only able to buy unhealthy cheap food. But the problem isn't just economic, is it? It might be cultural. Many people don't really know how to cook anymore and there may not even be a strong demand for these products at first. How much of the challenge for so called frontier farmers' markets is actually teaching people about food?
SCHUMACHERWell, I come back to John's point. I think that our studies -- we do an evaluation 'cause people want to know that -- how is our money being spent in the foundations and others. And I think John hit it by, that when we see these so called frontier markets with people going more and more into what they call the food deserts, which we really -- you know, doing a lot of work with Wholesome Wave, so we make it affordable. But we also make it accessible. And that's very, very important, those two words.
SCHUMACHERSo this really healthy -- what we're seeing is exactly as John has said. That regardless of income people don't want second grade. They will pay a fair price and where we make it affordable. So we see the same thing happening, John, in many markets around the country in these frontier, both rural and urban areas, that they buy fresh -- especially the seniors. And boy they know how to cook and they really negotiate. But -- so there -- if you make it affordable, you make it accessible people flock in. And that's what we're seeing -- John has pointed out and that's what we're seeing throughout our -- we're now in 25 states and D.C., about 300 to 400 farmers' markets, expanding very rapidly.
NNAMDIAnd one of the things we're seeing like in areas like Columbia Heights and the District of Columbia is where a large and wide variety of people are coming together, the affluent, the not so affluent, the lower income are all coming together. And joining us now by phone is Robert Schubert who is executive director of the Columbia Heights Community's (sic) Marketplace. Robert Schubert is a small scale farmer himself. Earlier this year he started his own firm in Virginia. Robert Schubert, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROBERT SCHUBERTThank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIAs I said, you -- go ahead. You seem to want to start without even being asked a question so go right ahead.
SCHUBERTOh yeah, I wanted to -- the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, we're a nonprofit. We began in 2010 and we operate a vibrant farmers' market every Saturday. And we increased access to freshly locally produced food and then have additional educational programs.
NNAMDIWhere's the market located?
SCHUBERTIt's at the Civic Plaza at the intersection of 14th and Park and Kenyon. There's a triangle there.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about the people who use the Columbia Heights Market.
SCHUBERTWell, as you know Columbia Heights is socioeconomically very diverse. And so we have people from different cultures, races, income who come every Saturday to partake in a wide variety of food. You know, we have 16 food vendors, five -- five or six produce farmers. And we find that what we're doing is taking local farmers, bringing fresh food and that's leading to healthier residents and economic development in Columbia Heights.
SCHUBERTAnd one -- probably our most popular program is called (word?) bucks, which is being generously supported by Wholesome Wave. Thank you, Gus. And this is a -- what we call a matching incentive program that increases access to fresh food for low income residents who receive all forms of better nutrition assistance. So that's WIC or senior vouchers. And what we do is we match their benefits up to $10 per recipient per Saturday. We've helped them buy more fresh food from our farmers than they could with just using their benefits.
SCHUBERTAnd we have found that so far this year our -- $23,278 of federal benefits have been spent at our market. And then, you know, we matched it -- we've matched it with $16,579 of thrifty bucks. So if you combine that of the thrifty bucks or our matching incentive program and the total benefits we're at almost $40,000. And what that is doing is helping low income people get healthy food which improves their health. And it's also helping local farmers stay on the land. But additionally, you know, a fair amount of that money stays in the community.
SCHUBERTFor example, farmers hiring, you know, local residents to help them sell at the market or farmers purchasing in the community. So not only are we helping people's health -- improving their health but also improving the local economic development scene.
NNAMDIDan Charles, the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace is, I think, one of the marketplaces you visited. Tell us, what were your observations about it?
CHARLESIt's a thriving place. It's a thriving place. And, you know, the thing that strikes you -- at least me when you show up is yes, there's a farmers' market but it's also a community gathering place. And I think -- I mean, Rob, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that that was part of the idea behind it. It's a Saturday morning institution. It's a place where people sort of wander through. You see people. There's really kind of a sense of the diverse community gathering there.
CHARLESYeah, and it's, you know...
SCHUBERTI mean, we bring together -- you know, we bring together food, community, you know, community service groups, entertainment, artists, you know, weekly. That's why we call it a festivus, which is Latin. You know, it's a festival with food sort of at the crux.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Peter in Glen Burnie, Md. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERWell, it's a fascinating program and I'm glad to hear the last speaker talk about what they're doing to promote the use of food stamps and adding to the benefit. The education component is interesting to me because I know too many people literally who might take advantage of proper nutrition. They're educated people. They have the money to buy the food but a lot of couch potato syndrome going on and a lot of obesity. And it's very worrisome.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you raised the issue of food stamps again, Peter, because, Gus, when Wholesome Wave first proposed the idea of doubling the value of SNAP benefits, apparently you actually needed a waiver from the federal law that governs food stamps. Why would this be illegal?
SCHUMACHERWell, because if -- do we want to have Coca Cola and Twinkies doubling -- providing incentive? So there's a rule, you know, and I think it's a fair rule the USDA has put down that you can't double -- you can't provide incentives in retail stores. So they gave us -- they gave the food movement a waiver that we could double -- or increase -- provide nutrition centers for food stamps, but only at farmers' markets and only for fresh fruits and vegetables for their nutrition. So that -- I'm very grateful for that. And that's -- you know, when you look now there's over 7,000 farmer's markets. Hopefully...
NNAMDIBecause they didn't want big soft drink manufacturers pitching to people who are on food stamps that they could get twice as much.
SCHUMACHEROh, that's a big controversy now on the sugary drinks. But we can come to that another time.
NNAMDIYes, indeed, we can. John, tell me a little bit about the logistics and economics of running the market and how they have changed overtime out in Ward 8.
GLOSTERWell, you know, we started literally on a shoestring and we ran it that way out of our own pockets for a number of years. It wasn't until the last five years when we got initially a grant from Capital Area food bank that we actually had a budget. And then with Gus's organization the Wholesome Wave Foundation we've really sort of kicked things in high gear.
GLOSTERIn the early days our farmers required a buyback. In order to entice real farmers to come down to Ward 8 as opposed to going to Columbia Heights or DuPont Circle, someplace where they could make five times as much money, we had to guarantee them a floor. What we -- I'm very proud to say is that with the Wholesome Wave grant and cutting the costs to people who have tight budgets, we have gotten volume up at our Ward 8 farmers' market to the point where at the Arc location, the original site, the farmers have been weaned off of the buyback program we call it.
GLOSTERAnd so that -- you know, those are signs that things are changing. I want to say something, you know, about what we talked about earlier about people not remembering or knowing how -- ever learning how to cook, an education component. When -- in the first years our market was almost exclusively little old ladies, okay. And it was like a little joke 'cause they'd all walk across the street and find their way to our market. Now we have just as many new mothers and expectant mothers coming, trying to figure out how to cook with fresh fruits and vegetables. And we have recipes on hand and we have demonstrations to show people how to cook healthy and to get us back to the healthy side of our roots.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi, great show, Kojo, as usual. I have a quick question. Are the folks in the farmers' market community finding that Americans, by virtue of being more selective in coming to a market and buying foods that are more nutritious, that there is less waste at home s a result? You know, Americans are notorious for having access to the largest supermarkets, buying more stuff than they need because they control a giant cart.
NNAMDISteve, allow me to put you on hold because I think Cindy in Alexandria, Va. may want to answer that question for you. Cindy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CINDYWell, hi, Kojo. Thank you. Yes, I called in to say that very thing, that my husband and I -- I shop at a farmers' market in Alexandria so happily every week. And I buy tons of apples and we eat every single one of them because they're so delicious and we don't have any waste. I mean, I don't throw away anything that I've bought at the farmers' market. And whenever I give away a tomato people are just ecstatic. They say it's the best one they've ever had. It's just -- to me it's just -- I can't go back. I can't shop other places anymore.
NNAMDIDan Charles, I don't know if you have ever reported on this or observed this but I'd like to hear your observation.
CHARLESIf there's less waste? You know, I don't know that anybody's ever studied, you know, how much waste there is depending where you bought your food. But, you know, the -- I think part of -- you know, the people who are really pushing the farmers' markets -- I mean, what they are ultimately I think sort of trying to do is change the relationship between consumers and the food they buy. And part of that is kind of developing this relationship with the people who grew it. And so maybe that does change your attitude toward, you know, the bag of lettuce that you brought in and you care more about whether it goes bad or not in your fridge. Who knows?
NNAMDICindy, thank you very much for your call. But, Robert Schubert, you are now wearing a different hat as a farmer. How are farmers viewing this arrangement?
SCHUBERTHow are -- what was your question? How are farmers...
NNAMDIHow are farmers viewing the arrangement, yes?
SCHUBERTOh, I mean, they -- it's great. It's -- you know, first of all the fact that they can participate, that they can receive, you know, WIC and Senior vouchers and food stamps, it enhances their income and it enables them to, you know, keep coming to a farmers' market. It sort of can put them over the top, if you will. So I find that all farmers I've encountered are very happy to participate in the program or programs.
NNAMDIGus Schumacher, same question to you. How -- from where you sit --
SCHUBERTKojo, I wanted to -- if I could...
NNAMDIOh, please go ahead, Robert.
SCHUBERT...I wanted to follow up on something that...
SCHUBERTI wanted to follow up on something that John said.
SCHUBERTIn 2010, we'd been receiving assistance underwriting for our (word?) program since 2011 from Wholesome Wave. But we started it in 2010 with a small amount of money, and I -- and at that time, Ward 8 didn't have an incentive program, and we did a survey, and I remember a woman who came up and she said -- and we have this documented, she's like, I come all the way from Anacostia from Ward 8, you know, to get produce here, you know, because of your (word?) bucks program.
SCHUBERTBut now that Ward 8 has a program -- has an incentive program, I imagine that she can get everything she needs right there.
NNAMDII guess so, John, huh?
GLOSTERYes, indeed. Can I piggyback on that waste comment, because I...
GLOSTER…think there's an angle there that we haven't explored yet, and that it, what really it really is is a question about the economics of food. It ties together. And what I mean by that is whether it's because you have less waste or whatever other benefits, one benefit is that with traditional food, of agrobusiness food, you have displaced costs and those are primarily in the American health. You know, as you know, we have astronomical, through the roof problem of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, all fueled by what I call the death cycle of American food, okay?
GLOSTERAnd what I mean by that is especially for people on a tight budget, it's actually cheaper per calorie to give your family the energy you need to keep going, to buy the unhealthy processed foods. So you saturate your system with the salts and the sugars and the chemicals, and you get a lot of calories, but your body is still craving something, and your body is saying I'm still missing nutrients, so then you become hungry again, and you consume even more calories, and before you've known it, you've consumed four and five times your daily calorie requirements, and you're a hundred pounds overweight, and then you have hospital bills, you're missing work, and all of these are costs, and when you look at paying, you know, $3 for an heirloom tomato per pound or whatever, compared to $40,000 hospital bill, the true cost is cheaper to buy healthy.
NNAMDIOn now to Carl on the eastern shore in Maryland. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLOh, Kojo. Thank you taking my call. Fascinating show today. I've been involved in agriculture one way or another for about over 30 years. But I've finally entered the certified organic market about five years ago, and I struggled in that business because of the level of competition. One of the things that I faced largely was anybody could say they're organic, and there was a lack of enforcement. The rigors of being an organic farmer really increased the price of our product, and we no longer could compete so we got out of the business, and I guess my question really is about regulating farmers' markets so that the consumer really is aware of the product that they're getting, and I'll get off the phone to hear your answer.
NNAMDICarl, thank you very much, but that's not the only issue. Dan, you recently reported on a controversial new study that found that organic fruits and vegetables have little health benefits. It seems like many people have begun to substitute buying local for buying organic. How do organic politics and food politics, more broadly, affect farmers' markets?
CHARLESYou got another hour, Kojo?
NNAMDIYeah. That's why I wanted to put you on the spot. We've got to take a break shortly too, but go ahead.
CHARLESOh, man, it's really complicated. So yeah. We got a lot of grief for our reporting on that study. I mean, it was a very narrow study. It just looked at can you measure direct health benefits to you as the consumer from buying organic, and the answer was basically no. The caller's question about who gets to call themselves organic gets to be kind of complicated too because there's the different certifying agencies, and there are people who say look, I farm in an organic way, but I'm not going to go through the whole certification process.
CHARLESI think, you know, in some ways it is really up to the people at the market to be transparent about what they do on their farms, and maybe it's the responsibility of the people running the market to actually sort of check in on the farming operations to make sure that they are doing what they -- what they say they are doing. Because the consumers at the market, you know, they want to be able to feel like they trust that guy, or that woman on the other side of the table. It's, you know, there's a lot of like trust and what exactly do I value in this buying decision.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk about health benefits in a slightly different way. What your physician might be able to do for you in terms of fruits and vegetables. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the economics of farmers' markets. We're talking with Robert Schubert. He is executive director of the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace. He's also a small scale farmer himself since earlier this year. He started his own farm in Virginia. John Gloster is president of the Ward 8 Farmers' Market Cooperative. Dan Charles is food and agriculture correspondent with NPR, and the author of several books including "Mastermind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber," and "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food."
NNAMDIAnd Gus Schumacher is executive vice president of policy with Wholesome Wave Foundation. He served as undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And Gus, I am reading a headline from the Washington Post that said districts needy get fruit and vegetable prescriptions, or fruit and vegetable RX which is the same thing. What's that all about?
SCHUMACHERWell, it's one of those things that John just eluded to a few minutes ago that what are the health impacts. And so at Wholesome Wave, in addition to our nutrition incentive program, a couple years ago we started a veggie -- we call it a vegetable -- fruit and vegetable prescription program. When I would go to my doctor over the years, and he would say eat better, lose the weight, diet, come back and see me next year, and now in 12 health clinics around the country, we're saying to doctors, we'll give you some money, we'll give the local farmers some money, farmers' markets some money, and we'll pay for a fruit and vegetable prescription, so Kojo...
NNAMDISo that when you tell me about that eat better part, you can be more specific.
SCHUMACHERExactly. So if you're my doctor and you say Gus, you have to lose a few pounds and reduce your blood pressure and reduce your sugar, here's $30 or $40 per week to your family. Here's a prescription to take to the Columbia Heights Farmers Market for 12 -- 11 other markets around the country, and give them to a farmer, and then that market -- in the case of Robert Schubert's market, they'll report back to you as the doctor, that I, Gus, bought 30 or $40 worth of fruits and vegetables. It's done on the Internet. And we're seeing really remarkable results in that.
CHARLESCan you only spend at a farmers' market, or can you also go to a supermarket with it?
SCHUMACHERNo. Only at a farmers' market. The prescriptions can only be spent -- because Wholesome Wave is funding it, so we work with doctors or nurse practitioners, the farmers, and we're seeing in some cases in Columbia Heights, 30 to 36 families every week, 24 weeks, and the result is remarkable. Last year we saw 38 percent of the people who came in last year at our markets have some improvement in their BMI. That we -- we scrubbed that data pretty hard, and the doctors said that was a result.
NNAMDIBroccoli might be the best medicine, Dan.
CHARLESBut I have to question that. Because if you're really trying to promote health, it's harder for them to find the time to go to that farmers' market that's only open once or twice a week, than it is to go to the Safeway where they can tomatoes, they can get vegetables all day long every day of the week.
SCHUMACHERWell, what's happened is that the USDA has decided they're going to look at that, so they have $20 million that they put in the farm bill last year, or a few years ago, and is underway now to see if a 30 -- if you swipe your card at a supermarket in western Mass. and you buys fruits and vegetables for a dollar, they load another 35 cents on your card to test to see -- what we're seeing though, if you got to, you know, John's market, and you swipe your car, or Robert Schubert's market, and you swipe and you get $30 to $40 per week, we're seeing quite a change, and we're going to see the test.
SCHUMACHERSo again, farmers are pharmacies. We have this huge health care problem with obesity and sugar. Let's -- we're going to test it. So far the results are promising. The doctors love it because they can say, doctor, Kojo, to me, Gus Schumacher, here's a prescription, go to the Columbia Heights farmers' market and I'll tell you -- come back every week -- every month, we'll test your BMI, we'll test your blood, especially sugar, and we'll see if there's a health benefit.
NNAMDIAnd I guess it's important to note how technology has facilitated all of this.
SCHUMACHERAbsolutely. Exactly. I mean, no -- and no side effects, you know. You have side effects with the pharmacies pharmaceuticals. The last time I knew, fruits and vegetables, farmers are pharmacists, no side effects.
NNAMDISpeaking of what we can get at supermarkets, Dan, we got this email from Rebecca, who says, "On the one hand, we have the farmers' market boom. On the other hand, the supermarkets have more and more prepared foods. One can hardly find a canned tomato that is not chopped, flavored, et cetera, or a frozen vegetable that is not in a microwavable bag. What's going on? There seem to be contradictory trends here."
CHARLESThere are contradictory trends. There are enormously contradictory trends. There are enormously contradictory trends in the American food system. But I think, you know, I mean, this is a simplistic answer, but I think it reflects contradictory trends in society. People want convenience. People want prepared food. People also want, you know, sort of the stuff they get at the farmers' markets. Maybe it's different people, maybe it's the same person, different times of the week, but yeah. It's going all over the map.
NNAMDIKind of like chewing broccoli and walking at the same time. Here in Ginger in Alexandria, Va. Ginger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GINGERHi. Thank you taking my call. Very interesting topic. The question I have is, I heard one of your guests say something negotiating, and I wonder is it possible to negotiate a price with a farmers' market vendor? You know, at the grocery store you just pay the price and...
NNAMDIRobert Schubert, what is the etiquette at farmers' markets?
SCHUBERTYou're free to negotiate prices.
NNAMDIThat's why a lot of people go, frankly. But go ahead.
SCHUBERTYeah. I see people do it. I mean, people have done it with me. I've observed, you know, customers doing that, and sometimes a farmer will do that, and, you know, sometimes he or she won't. It just depends.
GINGERSo how do you exactly do that? Do you say, oh, it's $1.99 a pound, would you take $1.50 a pound? How -- how do you ask that?
SCHUBERTGenerally, like if you buy more, you know, then you'll get a discount because they're moving more, you know, tomatoes for example. So if you buy like five pounds, then, you know, a lot of farmers are happy to, you know, meet your price.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, Ginger, Gus Schumacher can say we're not trying here to depress the prices of vegetables, we want to be able to keep farmers thriving.
SCHUMACHERWell, you know, I used to sell for my brother, so if someone came in at the last hour, last half an hour and I had a couple cases of peppers and tomatoes left, and Ginger you asked me can you buy that bushel for half the price of the retail, you have a deal.
GLOSTERLet me just take the other side of this coin though.
NNAMDIHere's John Gloster. Yes.
SCHUBERTI was going to -- I was going to say real quickly, the farmers, you know, by accepting your deal, I mean, they're not going to accept something that's just -- that's just, you know, wildly crazy, too low.
NNAMDIGoing to make them lose money.
SCHUBERTBut they also want to go back with an empty truck.
SCHUBERTThey don't want to take food back.
GLOSTERYeah. You know, for somebody who studied economics in the past, it's questionable whether or not you're better off going back with an empty truck even if it means accepting too low of a price, especially if it results in a trend that develops and enlarges over time. But I think it's important for us to remember that these are small farmers. At least the Ward 8 farmers' market. These are not agribusiness farmers. These are not giant thousand-acre farms. These are farms that are being run by one or two or three people using their own sweat labor.
GLOSTERThey're barely making, you know, what we might call, you know, a working-class lifestyle. And so let, you know, I would just suggest that we keep in mind that yes, we want the farmers to keep coming and providing us these good healthy food options.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here now is Traveler in Arlington, Va. Traveler, your turn.
TRAVELERHey guys. Really great conversation. I'm from Alaska, and I winter out here now during the winters, and it's been really inspiring to see what a great market community we have throughout northern Virginia and Washington. I'm a vendor and also a patron at a number of markets, and one thing I wanted to point was just simply that it may be hard to quantify the health benefits of eating organic or from farmers' markets, but it's certainly easy to see that people are happier when they're shopping at markets.
TRAVELERI see smiling faces, conversations, lots of laughing, tons of kids, dogs, and, you know, not to poo poo grocery stores, they're great places for certain things, but you just don't see that same sort of community and smiling faces and laughing and all that kind of stuff.
NNAMDIDan Charles, there are tangible and intangible benefits for the neighborhoods that host farmers' markets, and for the vendors. Did you find mostly that customers and farmers come out for a blend of the two, that the relationships that are formed there tend to be important to customers and farmers alike?
CHARLESTalking to the vendors, talking to the farmers, I got the sense that ultimately for them it's a business. They've got to make money. On the other hand, for instance, at Ward 8, I was talking with, you know, the primary vegetable farmer and he also talked about look, I'm here for the people, you know. These people here, they need to same food to eat as the folks up in northwest. I give a lot of food away, he said, you know.
CHARLESIf people say they'd love to get that but they don't have the money, so I think there is also on that side of the table, you know, a mixture of motives. Certainly for the customers. I think they're there partly for the food, and partly for the community experience.
GLOSTERYeah. Even small markets like ours, the community experience is a big component of it, and for our farmers that have been with us for a long time, they have to be motivated by something more than money because they could have made more money elsewhere.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. John Gloster is president of the Ward 8 Farmers' Market. Robert Schubert is executive director of the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace. He's also a small scale farmer himself by starting his own farm earlier this year in Virginia. Robert Schubert, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Gus Schumacher is vice president of policy with Wholesome Wave Foundation. He was under secretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services with the U.S.D.A. Gus Schumacher, thank you for joining us. Dan Charles is food and agriculture correspondent with NPR, author of several books including "Mastermind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber," and "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food." Dan, thank you for joining us.
CHARLESIt was a pleasure.
NNAMDIJohn Gloster, good having you aboard.
GLOSTERThank you, Kojo. Appreciate it.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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