Michel Nischan (above) founded Wholesome Wave in 2007 to make healthy food more affordable and accessible to low-income Americans

Photo by Tom Hopkins

This Chef Has Been Putting Food Sustainability on the Table for Decades

With a dash of entrepreneurship and a sprinkle of activism, celebrity chef Michel Nischan, a NationSwell Council member, has devoted his life to bringing healthy food to the poorest Americans.

Back in 2007, there were only two farmers’ markets in the country that offered a special deal for poor families: one in New York City and another in Columbia Heights, Md. That’s before Michel Nischan, a James Beard Award-winning chef long associated with the sustainable food movement, got involved. His grassroots organization, the nonprofit Wholesome Wave, helped persuade Congress to provide low-income families with extra bucks if they bought healthy, local fare. NationSwell spoke to Nischan by phone about his efforts to end food insecurity.

Wholesome Wave aspires to make healthy, local food more affordable to low-income shoppers. How have you accomplished that goal?
The target of our activity is federal dollars. The average person’s benefit through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is about $4.20 a day — and that’s to spend on breakfast, lunch and dinner. When that’s all you have to spend on food, you’re really forced to make choices that you might not want to make.

The 2014 Farm Bill included the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, with $100 million dollars in federal funding that has to be matched in full from the private sector to double SNAP dollars spent on fruits and vegetables. We wanted to level the playing field between healthy food and artificially inexpensive foods, like instant rice and noodles or snack chips, which are cheaper because of agriculture policies, tax breaks for large manufacturing facilities and transportation subsidies that scaled system enjoys. We raised private money to double SNAP and started with fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. The message to the consumer was “Spend your SNAP on anything you want, but if you come over here [to the farmers’ market], you double your money.”

Why do fruits and vegetables often cost more than less healthy foods?
The major reason some foods are so incredibly inexpensive is the public support for soy, corn, rice and wheat. Cereal companies often pay a price that is below the cost of production. After world wars I and II, these crops were favored as the future, and we produced a lot of them, because whichever country or ally bloc had the most food for its marching armies would be the one to win a war. When we learned how to process food to make it last 10 years, how to make it lighter so it’s cheaper to transport, how to put nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium in the ground so things would miraculously grow, we felt secure. And we also thought we could end starvation and feed the world. In that compelling moment, it was really easy to get the American public and Congress on board. It wasn’t to give one sector an unfair advantage, but those systems are still in place. It’s kind of a false economy; it’s not a true free market. [The question now is], how do we create a case to shift all of that public money that goes to funding these artificially inexpensive foods, which we now know are not good for us and the environment, to the types of foods that are good?

The Central Avenue Market in Los Angeles is one of more than 700 groceries where Wholesome Wave's Fruit and Vegetables Prescription (FVRx) vouchers are accepted. Photo by Mpu Dinani/A-Game Photography

What has building this grassroots organization taught you about leadership?
We need people to understand what they can align on. What I’ve learned over the years — and I think this is endemic in our society — is that we only want to work with people who think just like we do. Whether it’s in business or nonprofits, you’d much prefer working with someone who shares your core values. People ask us, “Is Wholesome Wave anti-GMO?” Why are you asking us that question? We’re about affordable access. Let’s align on that. If the thing you deeply, personally believe in is migrant farm-worker rights, equitable access to land or a ban on GMOs, work on those things. But there are other ways, while we’re doing our work, to come together on food justice.

What can the rest of us do to help further this movement?
I think food is one of the most powerful lenses to evaluate the quality of a lawmaker when we’re going to the polls. What’s their stance on abortion or marriage equality? All of those are important things and informed by deeply held religious beliefs. But if you’re going to take a meal a day off the table of a child by eliminating nutrition in schools, or you say that you don’t see the point of paying for healthcare in schools, you’re probably a jerk. How they vote on food and hunger is a great lens into their soul. Personally, I want an honorable, good person in office making decisions on my behalf. When you show up to vote, make sure you know what these folks do with food votes. You can go on Food Policy Action, put in your zip code and get a score for your representatives based on how they vote on food issues.

What books would you recommend to read up on the current system?
I’d recommend Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire,” Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America,” Mas Masumoto’s “Wisdom of the Last Farmer,” and “Fair Food” by Oran B. Hesterman. Still, none of those really touches on the potential power of changing the decision you make at the grocery store. Food has the amazing potential to fix human health, the environment, our economy and our society, and people need to be inspired.

What other innovations are you excited about right now?
With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, we see an opportunity in the way Medicare and Medicaid dollars are spent, now that we’re shifting to more of a prevention culture rather than a fee-for-service model. We could potentially see billions of dollars put toward creating a fruit-and-vegetable prescription program. [In 2011, Wholesome Wave launched the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program to encourage healthcare providers to prescribe fresh produce to patients.] Doctors, nutritionists and nurse practitioners can work together to diagnose an at-risk patient, work to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, and then measure that for health outcomes.

It’s actually less expensive to feed a family of four fruits and vegetables for 20 years than it is to have one person go on dialysis for four years. Dialysis from diabetes and kidney failure is the most expensive line-item in Medicare and Medicaid. And if we could get certain healthy food item SKUs coded as reimbursable for prevention, that would unlock billions of dollars and affordability for the country’s 66 million food-insecure people who are having difficulty making the lifestyle changes to prevent diseases that cost us over half a trillion dollars a year.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]