It was with great sadness that we, at Alexandra Rose Charity, learnt yesterday of the sudden passing of Gus Schumacher. Gus was a towering figure in food access and it was his fortuitous visit to the United Kingdom in 2012 that set the spark for the development of the Rose Vouchers for Fruit & Veg project and a whole new chapter in the 105 year history of Alexandra Rose Charity. Read Jonathan’s tribute here…

Remembering Gus Schumacher

It was with great sadness that we, at Alexandra Rose Charity, learnt yesterday of the sudden passing of Gus Schumacher. Gus was a towering figure in food access in the United States and it was his fortuitous and well timed visit to the United Kingdom in 2012 that set the spark for the development of the Rose Vouchers for Fruit & Veg project and a whole new chapter in the 105 year history of Alexandra Rose Charity.

Gus had a colourful career in the US, raised on a farm in Lexington, he went on to work at the World Bank, USDA and then in 1997 he became Undersecretary for Farm, Foreign, and Agricultural Services in the Clinton Administration.

It was his work with WholesomeWave that began in 2007 that would lead him eventually to the door of Alexandra Rose Charity. Gus set up Wholesome Wave with chef Michel Nischan with the simple idea that the Supplemental Nutrition Programme (commonly known in the US as Food Stamps) could be repurposed to promote the increased consumption of healthy food.

They conceived of a programme that would match food stamps spent on fresh fruit & vegetables dollar for dollar. Gus felt that If such incentives worked, it would prove that low-income families weren’t choosing junk food because they preferred it, as many believed. It was because fresh food was financially out of reach.

This incentive approach had other benefits. The focus of their expenditure was in small local markets which would have a knock on effect of supporting the local economy – something that was much needed as the financial crisis of 2008 started to bite.

The approach caught on like wildfire. In 2012 the Wholesome Wave network incorporated 54 partners in 24 states. Today it’s in 48 states reaching half a million Americans.

In 2012 I was working for the London Food Board – a commission set up by the Mayor of London to make the city’s food system healthier and more sustainable. We were contacted by a researcher at Newcastle University who was organising a visit to the UK by Gus and he wanted to know if the London Food Board would be available to meet with him. Looking at Gus’ background and the interesting work he had developed with Wholesome Wave I thought it could make for an interesting meeting at which to share cross Atlantic approaches.

Unfortunately because of the birth of my daughter I missed out on attending this meeting but when I returned to work the enthusiasm of colleagues for what they had learned was palpable. Rosie Boycott the Chair of the London Food Board proudly produced a copy of the Boston Bounty Buck and told me what a fantastic idea she thought it would be to have such incentive schemes in London to tackle the growing scourge of food poverty & lack of access to affordable healthy food. Despite how impressed we were we had absolutely no idea of how we would get such a scheme off the ground in London let alone access the funding resources needed to make it happen.

Amazingly, exactly two weeks after Gus’ visit I received a call from Aaron Mills – a trustee of the Alexandra Rose Charity. The charity – with a long and proud history – was looking for a new focus. The board had wound down the previous operations of the Rose Day collections and were faced with a stark choice – close the charity or find a new and relevant focus that would allow the charity to reinvent itself for the 21st Century. The trustees had an idea that they wanted to do something about food poverty and diet related ill health, and the point where the two issues meet, but they didn’t know where to start.  

We invited the charity into City Hall for a chat and as we discussed the options available to them the subject of Gus’ visit came up and the idea of double value coupons. The charity immediately saw the potential in this approach and jumped at the chance to be the first organisation to bring this approach to the UK.

ARC commissioned a business case and ran two very successful, small pilot projects in Hackney and Greenwich. On the back of these pilots ARC committed to expand their work and they approached me to come on board to run the charity.

I had spent the last 10 years of my career in the UK working on the issue of food access, health & sustainability and here was chance to work on something that I thought was bringing a totally unique approach to the issue. I leapt at the chance of coming on board.

Soon after I took on the role I got in touch with Gus to update him on our progress since his last visit. He was hugely excited to hear that his visit had led to the creation of something, albeit small, in the UK. Gus introduced me to colleagues at Wholesome Wave who could explain how their model was developing in the US and soon ARC became the first overseas organisation signed up to the Wholesome Wave Network. Gus also told me of his plans to return to the UK in early 2015. I jumped at the chance to meet him in person and organised to host him for lunch at the Duke of Cambridge Organic Pub in Islington with Rosie Boycott, Teresa Wickham, Laurence Cockcroft and ARC Chair Mike Morris.

It was great to finally meet him. He was incredibly curious about our work and how we had adapted it to conditions here in the UK. What struck me was how attentive and gentle he was. And boy could he tell an engaging story! Charm personified. We left that first meeting brimming with new ideas and over the next year kept in close contact.

In 2016 Gus planned another trip. We organised a visit to our project in Brixton South London with colleagues from the Department of Health, Artemis – one of our corporate funders, and Brixton Market Traders Federation. It was a beautiful sunny day in October. The market was buzzing with people and Gus held court. With traders, with Department of Health, with random customers stopping by for their morning shopping. He was so excited to see what he called “garden eggs” on the market which he said were a speciality in west African cuisine. He stopped one shopper and asked him from over his shoulder “These garden eggs look great! How do you cook them.” The shopper was somewhat disarmed by this tall, genial, elderly American gentleman accosting him on Brixton Market to ask him how to cook with garden eggs. Yet the man politely described how he fried them with onions and spices. You could see Gus taking mental notes as he spoke.

We had a fantastic morning that day and again left inspired that the person who inspired us was now equally impressed with what we had created here in the UK. Gus left the visit with a bag full of our flyers and a promise to distribute them near and far as he travelled further across the country. Sure enough, two days later, Gus emailed me with a photo of him with conference organisers in Scotland all holding up Rose Voucher promotional pamphlets! He was such a generous champion of our work.

I was so looking forward to his next visit that was due this coming October. We had been in regular email contact. He had even inspired us to develop our very own version of Wholesome Waves Veggie RX scheme where fruit & veg vouchers are distributed as a prescription to patients in doctors surgeries or in dietetics departments. This will be piloted in Lambeth with the GP Food Cooperative in Spring 2018.

So it’s with great sadness and with a huge debt of gratitude that we bid farewell to Gus. He’s not only left a huge legacy for Alexandra Rose Charity and food access work in the UK but also fantastic memories of a lovely gentleman with a warm heart and a passion for a more just and equitable food system.

Thank you Gus

Jonathan Pauling

CEO Alexandra Rose Charity