A Conversation with Michel Nischan

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For 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.</p>
<em>Utne Reader </em>assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren
interviewed Michel Nischan by phone in late August 2012. Here is the
transcript.  </p>
<em>Utne Reader:</em> 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.</strong>
<br />
<br />
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.<br />
<br />
<strong>First I wanted to ask you about the origins of
Wholesome Wave. What inspired it and how did it come about?</strong>
<br />
<br />
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. <br />
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. <br />
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.<br />
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.<br />
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.<br />
<br />
<br />
<br />
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.<br />
<br />
<strong>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.</strong>
<br />
<br />
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. <br />
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.<br />
<br />
<strong>Was the Double Value Coupon Program the founding
program of Wholesome Wave?</strong>
<br />
<p>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.<em>
</em>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.<br />
<br />
<strong>And the growth that’s happening, is that all
through Wholesome Wave, or are there other programs like it starting on their
<br />
<p>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.<br />
<br />
<strong>Tell me about the programs Wholesome Wave has
started doing since this one.</strong>
<br />
<p>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. <br />
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. <br />
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.<br />
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? <br />
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. <br />
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. <br />
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.<em>
</em>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
<p>Visit <a href=”http://wholesomewave.org/”>Wholesome Wave</a> online.</p>
<p>Read Nischan’s essay, “<a href=”http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/07/the-economic-case-for-food-stamps/260015/”>The
Economic Case for Food Stamps</a>,” at <em>The
<p>Learn more about his work as a
chef and policy innovator at <a href=”http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/01/10/wholesome-wave-michel-nischan%E2%80%99s-2nd-act”>Food
Republic</a>, <a href=”http://www.planitnow.org/august2010-michel-nischan/”>PLAN!T
NOW</a>, and <a href=”http://www.pbs.org/food/chefs/michel-nischan/”>PBS Food</a>.
<p>Video: TEDxManhattan: Great
Tomatoes For All</p>
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