Each year, tens of billions of dollars enter the American economy with a single purpose: to be spent on food. Though no one can say where money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, once known as food stamps) goes, exactly, it’s a safe bet that most of it finds its way to the coffers of multinational food manufacturing companies and corporate farms. But what if that money re-circulated through local economies via small farms? What if that money were spent not on cheap, processed food, but on the healthy fare found at farmers’ markets? Such questions became the seeds of Wholesome Wave, founded by Michel Nischan and Gus Schumacher in 2007.
The nonprofit’s founding program doubled the value of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets. In theory, it could be a hard sell getting people to give up Cheetos, Oreos, and all of those deliciously processed “o”s in favor of kale and cucumbers. Nischan has a different story to tell. At markets, “the SNAP and the WIC people were showing up when it was sleeting and raining and snowing and cold when, pardon the expression, all the white people were staying home because the weather was bad. Underserved community members were going because it was their only healthy food access. The farmers were blown away by that.”
Quality of produce has been the main draw for roughly 90 percent of participants. Also important were the markets’ acceptance of SNAP benefits and the desire to support local farmers and businesses. “It’s not that folks in these communities maybe want the access,” says Michel Nischan. “They’re desperate for it, they just can’t afford it. When [markets] provide affordability with something as simple as a two-for-one sale, they come in droves and they continue to come after the benefit is gone.”
The real benefit, of course, is health. With the Double Value Coupon Program at over 400 markets nationwide, the potential for better health is high. But Wholesome Wave isn’t done yet–new programs like the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Healthy Food Commerce Initiative are primed to open the doors to health even wider.