Initiative Supports Farmers’ Markets on Military Bases to Improve Healthy Food Access
February 23, 2016 | AJ Hughes
Food equity nonprofit Wholesome Wave vice president Gus Schumacher recently took a serendipitous airplane trip—he sat next to a retired general, and the two began talking about the lack of healthy food access on military bases.
The general happened to serve on an advisory council for the Healthy Base Initiative; a program launched to address an epidemic of obesity among troops.
“Thirty percent of recruits were obese, which costs the Department of Defense significantly,” says Wholesome Wave founder and CEO Michel Nischan. “The Department of Defense wanted to change the environment on base, and it thought that having farmers’ markets on bases was a good idea.”
Hence, on-base farmers’ markets became a core strategy of the Healthy Base Initiative, which was formally launched on March 18, 2013. Thanks in large part to the chance meeting of Schumacher and the retired general, Wholesome Wave joined the effort.
In November 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense, together with USDA and Wholesome Wave, released a resource titled Guide for Farmers Markets on Military Installations. The purpose of the guide is to assist military bases in making available healthier food options, which the Department of Defense believes will boost the military’s overall health and improve combat readiness.
Wholesome Wave helped pilot farmers’ markets on bases—Nischan sees the difference they made, and why more bases will want them.
“One-and-a-half years in, farmers’ markets on bases are so popular,” he says. “So the Department of Defense wanted to put out a toolkit.”
The guide was designed to aid military installation leaders, many of whom may be unfamiliar with farmers’ market logistics, understand how a farmers’ market works and if it would be feasible for a market to be located on the base.
If leaders decide that an on-base farmers’ market is worth pursuing, the guide helps them develop and execute next steps in its implementation. Additionally, it provides a roadmap as to how an on-base farmers’ market can support the local economy and bolster relationships with area businesses and farmers.
Another emphasis is education. For example, in 2014 Fort Meade, a U.S. Army base in Maryland, offered a lesson on how to cook healthy foods at its farmers’ market.
Currently, there are about a dozen farmers’ markets on American military bases. This number is expected to grow.
“I think more farmers’ markets will be on bases,” says U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Richard Roberts. “This guide is a step-by-step process in working through it.”
The farmers’ market program is a component of an even larger, more comprehensive effort toward optimal military health: Operation Live Well. According to Roberts, attacking sedentary lifestyles and enhancing nutrition and physical activity are key parts of a broad national defense strategy. Ultimately, he believes it’s an issue of national security.
Roberts is pleased that two federal agencies (USDA and Department of Defense) were able to effectively collaborate with a private organization (Wholesome Wave) to further a good cause.
“The USDA and Department of Defense have a common interest,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of such a coordinated effort between a couple of federal agencies and a nonprofit organization.”
Arthur Neal, deputy administrator with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, also predicts that military bases will see more on-site farmers’ markets in the future.
“The Department of Defense is committed to doing a good job in encouraging farmers’ market installations,” he says.
Nischan says the presence of farmers’ markets on bases reflects a larger national trend that puts local and healthy food in high demand.
“All Americans want access to locally grown food, and this is made obvious when you see big-box stores like Walmart stress local foods,” he says. “Together with USDA and the Department of Defense, we’re solving problems.”