A Conversation with Michel Nischan


Michel NischanFor many people, poverty means a diet of highly processed foods and the attendant poor health. Reversing such a trend might seem overwhelming, but the founders of Wholesome Wave saw it as an opportunity. Michel Nischan and Gus Schumacher created the Double Value Coupon Program, making SNAP benefits worth double in farmers markets. The program is now enabling health, strengthening local economies, and empowering communities across the United States.

Utne Reader assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren interviewed Michel Nischan by phone in late August 2012. Here is the transcript.  

Utne Reader: When we read about Wholesome Wave and the Double Value Coupon Program, we thought it was an innovative idea, so we started looking into the organization.

Michel Nischan: We’re really proud of the work we’re doing here and we’re thrilled to say that we’re seeing it have an impact. That’s all any of us can hope for, especially those of us interested in food and social justice. We feel pretty good about it. It’s been easy for us to sleep at night.

First I wanted to ask you about the origins of Wholesome Wave. What inspired it and how did it come about?

I’ve been a locavore chef for over 30 years now. My focus on locavore came because my parents really should have been farmers and were displaced by the conventional agricultural takeover of the small American family farm. So back after World War II they kind of were forced from their birthright. I really should be a farmer in Missouri right now that cooks well, you know? But I’m perfectly happy doing what I’m doing. That was the background of why I was doing what I was doing as a chef.
About halfway through my career--18 years ago--my son Chris was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. I learned very very quickly that what we fed Chris would have more to do with the quality of his long term outcome than his insulin regimen and everything else around banishing the disease. During pouring myself into the study of what to do to help Chris, I started learning about Type II diabetes, which is far more prevalent. The thing that really broke my heart, well there were two things that broke my heart. The first is that it’s diet preventable, caused by a poor diet in the majority of cases. Some of it is hereditary, but the majority of it is caused by poor food choices and lifestyle. The second thing that broke my heart is that the majority of people that suffer from it are living in the type of poverty that disallows them from being able to change or prevent such a condition from happening to them or their family members.
I hit a point of probably undiagnosed clinical depression, because I was chef of a white tablecloth restaurant, feeling good about doing local food because I could charge 30 dollars for an entree, then learning about the number of Americans suffering from this terribly devastating disease and they really had no control over being able to prevent it. It was at that time that I was introduced to Gus Schumacher, the co-founder of Wholesome Wave. He’s our executive vice president of policy. He’s the guy who helped us get our incentive program into the Farm Bill that passed the Senate. Our fingers are crossed.
Anyway, I was introduced to Gus because I had this desire to do something about it. Gus, when he was Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services--which is the third highest in the USDA behind the Secretary of Agriculture--Gus’ proudest moment was creating the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children living in poverty and for seniors living in poverty. It was terribly underfunded, which he had nothing to do with, but a disappointment for him.
So he and I were both going through our own phases of, ‘Damn! How can we make this better?’ And we founded Wholesome Wave in 2007. We started back in 1999 doing hobby kind of stuff, helping non-profit friends of ours and refugee and immigrant farmers get better prices by introducing them to restaurants, et cetera, et cetera. We were having fun, but we formally founded back in 2007 around the last Farm Bill.


So it was kind of like, my son getting diabetes, Gus’ programs getting underfunded, the energy around that but also the opportunity we saw when we realized that there are so many people in underserved communities that are in a position to benefit from better food access. And when you combine all of their food assistance benefits, it’s tens of billions of dollars a year that come into the American economy that can only be spent on food. We saw that as a big opportunity for local farmers, for environmental protection, et cetera.

One of the things we found so innovative about the program is that, not only does it help people afford the food that they want to eat, but it’s also great for the local economy.

Absolutely. One of the things we love--and you guys may have come across this on our website--in our data outcomes we surveyed I think it was 1700 farmers in 2010 and 2200 in 2011, around 600 federal benefits consumers in 2010 and 1300 in 2011. In the farm sector, 10 percent of the farms had to increase acreage, diversify crop plantings. It was either 8 or 12 percent actually added hoop houses. 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. They diversified crop plantings, they added infrastructural investments. On the consumer end, we asked the question, ‘Why is this program important to you? Why is going to the market important to you?’ Is it that the market accepts the benefits, is it that the market doubles [the value], et cetera. We always expected those to be the two top reasons. The number one reason--and it was something like 87 percent said it was most important in 2010 and 91 percent in 2011--quality of produce. Number two was that the market accepted the benefits and three was supporting local farmers and businesses.
So it’s not that folks in these communities maybe want the access. They’re desperate for it, they just can’t afford it. When they 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. It’s good stuff.

Was the Double Value Coupon Program the founding program of Wholesome Wave?

It’s the founding program. We actually were dabbling, because I had opened Dressing Room restaurant, which I own and the late actor Paul Newman was my partner. So I knew I wanted to do Wholesome Wave, we knew we wanted to deal in underserved communities and get more affordable food access. Our initial concept was, ‘Let’s figure out how to do this,’ that’s before we founded. So we funded, with the proceeds from Dressing Room restaurant, a farmers market in the parking lot of Westport County Playhouse. It was the first producer-only farmers market in Fairfield County, Connecticut. You know, there were farmers markets, but a lot of them were reselling stuff that they got at the Bronx Produce Terminal. So we did a producer only thing and we thought if we could introduce these guys to a really lucrative market we could talk them into going into Bridgeport or Norwalk. We learned very quickly that that wasn’t going to work, so that’s when we felt that the incentive program would be the thing that would really help make markets viable in underserved communities. Farmers will go anywhere if they know that people, want their produce, will buy it, and that they can go back at the end of the day with an empty truck and decent amount of money. That’s a good thing and that’s exactly what the program did, so it was our founding program. When we formalized Wholesome Wave, we formalized it out of the Double Value Coupon Program.

And the growth that’s happening, is that all through Wholesome Wave, or are there other programs like it starting on their own?

We’re aware of a few dozen programs out there that have started on their own because they just say, ‘Wow, we could do that.’ And they’re going out and raising their own money and they’re doubling it, they’re getting EBT machines. We think that’s fabulous. We’re working through a network of 70 non-profit program partners. With doubling we’re in 29 states and Washington D.C., in over 400 markets. What we don’t want to be is the kind of non-profit where it’s like, ‘Here’s our concept, here’s the way you have to do it. We’re coming into your community, we gotta set up an office, everything has to be this color and this language.’ We don’t do that because we realize that urban communities are different than rural communities, that Eastern are different that Western are different than Southern or Central-Western. There are really great people on the ground in all regions of the world working on food justice issues. To come and set up in somebody else’s community and have brand stability to put them out of business, as well ignore the fact that these organizations are talented, capable, passionate, and already have deep relationships of trust established in the communities they’re working in. So that’s the way we went in. When Gus and I were doing the hobby stuff, we were very familiar with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Gus was a consultant for them, I was on their conference planning committee for a couple years, we’d gotten to know a lot of the Kellogg grantees and other groups that were out there that weren’t funded by Kellogg that were doing really great work. When we started the program we immediately went to non-profits we knew we could trust, they had deep relationships in their community and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea. What do you think?’ They said, ‘Wow, we love it. How do we get in?’ Then we’d say, ‘Well, all we need from you is that you craft a budget and you have to build it out so you’re the cashier of the market, you’re taking responsibility for an alternative currency, so that we’re not creating an opportunity for fraud. So the accounting management is important and the data collection. Those two things are what thread all of our 70 partners together. Those are the things everybody has to do the same. Otherwise, they can call it whatever they want. It’s Double Dollars in D.C. It’s Market Match in California, it’s Double-Up Food Bucks in Michigan. You know, do whatever you want with that stuff, but we all have to agree that if we’re going to change the legislation and shift the way public dollars are working to get a better outcome, we need to be able to build a case that’s irrefutable. We really probably have, indirectly, 250 Wholesome Wavers. It’s working beautifully and it allowed us to deploy rapidly and the outcomes are powerful.

Tell me about the programs Wholesome Wave has started doing since this one.

It’s interesting because we had another founding program that we just backed off on. We had very limited human resources and the marketplace wasn’t quite ready for the concept. It was a program called Green Wave, and that was a farm to college program.
We recognized the energy that was being created by the Yale Sustainable Food Project when Alice Waters went in and got really mad about the food they were serving in the cafeteria there and said, ‘There must be a way you can take just one of twelve campuses and have everything come from local, organic producers, cooked from scratch for the kids.’ They still have not been able to do that. It was a big mission, but it did create all of these contracts now, where institutions of higher learning are requiring the Aramarks and the Sodexhos to go a certain percent local by certain years or they can lose their contract. But we also saw that they couldn’t enforce the contract because these food service companies could prove that they couldn’t get the amount of food to be able to meet the mandates.
I was on the advisory board--Alice invited me and Gus both to be on the advisory board of that--so when we looked at it we said, ‘Listen, we need to push some of this upstream. We need to find mid-size producers that can come up with a tractor load of tomatoes, a third of a tractor load of eggplant, a couple tons of onions and have oven-roasted pizza sauce that can be made into pasta sauce, oven-roasted vegetable lasagna, and can be turned into a soup, a variety of different things, so we can take these tractor loads and put them into a condition where there’s the skill and infrastructure level that these kitchens can handle.
It was funny because Alice looked at it and she was like, ‘Oh, look how big the kitchens are. There’s no reason we can’t do this.’ And I’m looking at them with my background in food service, saying, ‘This kitchen can’t handle a tractor load of tomatoes.’ They don’t have the equipment to be able to put it into that form where they can serve the local food year-round Connecticut only has a five-month growing season, and three of those months school’s out of session. So what do we do, right?
We started that program and just backed off on it because people weren’t getting it. But now there’s all this energy around food hubs. We always believed that if we were going to be successful steering public money in the direction of helping more people across more socio-economic demographics to afford locally grown food and demand it, that the businesses don’t exist to be able to take advantage of that new market we would be creating. It would be an incomplete mission. We would end up doing all this great work only to have the big boxes of the major multinational food companies swoop in and figure out a way to get into the vegetable business. So, the Healthy Food Commerce Initiative is our newest, most exciting program, but it was part of us from the very beginning in that, ‘How do we use instruments like farm credit, new markets tax credit, social finance, funds like Imprint Capital and RSF out of San Francisco, and some of these others and help steer them and help re-arrange the instruments so they’re appropriate for these types of food businesses.
How do we get the businesses and these really excited, engaged entrepreneurs the technical assistance they need so that they better understand the opportunities for their business so they can accept financing and pay it back. So we’ve believe that school food’s going to be changed to the types of facilities that are co-owned by farmers and community entrepreneurs that can change school food in 10 school districts without having to rebuild 12,000 kitchens, which is not going to happen on current school budgets, and hire 100,000 more cafeteria workers, which isn’t going to happen on current school budgets. That’s a good one.
And then our Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program we actually started working on almost immediately after we deployed the doubling. We realized with the doubling that for that program to be successful and be widely accepted by people living in poverty, we didn’t want to make a condition of them being able to take part in the two-for-one sale having to roll their sleeve up. And be monitored for health outcomes. We knew we needed another program and we also knew that the health outcomes would be important if we wanted to target the Affordable Health Care Act and really look at the Measurable Prevention Clause, Title VI Section 4013, because that’s an even bigger pot of potential money for local farmers than the Farm Bill. We designed the program, we’ve raised enough money so that doctors and nurse practitioners in underserved community health clinics working in conjunction with nutritionists can actually advise--triage an entire at-risk family--advise them to eat better and to exercise and then give them the resources to eat better. So they go to markets where we already have the non-profit program expert collecting data and managing alternative currency and we’ve created this wrap-around community of practice which also includes the community member, instead of them just being separate silos of something that might be available to someone living in poverty. Everyone is touching the same patient, the patient’s giving feedback, everyone’s acting like neighbors. We’ve broken the silos down. Because it’s a private prescription and it doesn’t require someone to spend their food stamps--so it’s not a two-for-one sale, it’s a doctor saying, ‘You need to eat better, here’s your prescription’--the families are enthusiastic about coming back once a month to be measured for health outcomes. Those are our three programs and then we have the policy department, which Gus heads. He’s the one who’s been sharing all of our outcomes in Washington in a way that’s equaling policy change.

11/5/2012 3:14:48 PM

I'd love to see something like this get started in Texas.With hoop houses we can grow food all year long.Even during the horrible drought I grew a lot of food with sun shading.heavy mulching and irragation.

Facebook Instagram Twitter