Wholesome Wave: Michel Nischan’s 2nd Act
Boosting healthy eating initiatives. Saving farms.
Our guest editor Michel Nischan has spent considerable time cooking all over the world—running kitchens in Milwaukee, New York and at a luxury hotel in India. Cooking was his life and soul. It’s why he got up before dawn and crashed into bed far past midnight. As any champion toques or rising line cooks will equally tell you, cooking professionally at restaurants is the life. And it’s pretty damn addictive. To quit? That’s just not an option.
“I barely cook anymore,” says Nischan, a two-time James Beard Award winner, matter-of-fact as we're driving to his home in Fairfield, Connecticut. As shocking as it sounds—for the former head of food and beverage at Drew Neiporent's Myriad Restaurant Group to admit he’s out of the game—it’s not that surprising.
Rewind two hours where I’m sitting at a table at Nischan’s pioneering farm-to-table bistro Dressing Room in Westport. We’re 45 minutes into our conversation and the chef hasn’t skipped a beat. The only time I can sneak in a question is when he's nibbling on one of the restaurant's exquisitely lemony dry-rubbed ribs. “We’ve changed administrative and grant-level policy and eventually got something into the farm bill,” he says proudly of the $100 million earmarked for fruit and vegetable incentives. It’s a staggering figure and one of Nischan’s proudest moments at the foundation he runs, Wholesome Wave. It’s also the reason he’s only cooking 1-2 days a week. The rest is spent traveling the country (and world) to help raise awareness—and funds—for his 20-person team.
As Nischan describes it, Wholesome Wave (which he co-founded a little over four years ago with Gus Schumacher, Nora Pouillon and Betsy Fink) has three main initiatives, which are completed through a network of 50 community-based organizations. “We identify non-profits operating in cities, states and rural areas that love the concepts of food access, food affordability, food justice and environmental issues,” he says of his partners. “They must have an established track record, efficacy in their work and, bottom line, they get things done.”
The first initiative is a “double-value” program that increases the value of federal nutrition benefits including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). The concept is simple; when program participants shop at approved farm-to-retail venues (mostly farmers markets), they receive double the benefits for locally grown fruits and vegetables.
The benefits are vast: providing healthy (and affordable) produce for underserved communities, aiding the fight of diseases like childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease. There are also economic benefits—in 2010 the foundation states that over $1 million extra was spent at the markets through the increased benefits, which adds up to a whole lot of apples and peas. The program is currently being offered in over 30 states.
The second, slightly more nebulous, initiative is the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (sometimes referred to as FVRx). The hope is to bridge the gap between healthcare providers and organizations working with farm-to-market retail venues. The idea was born out of a healthy eating marketing campaign a Wholesome Wave employee observed in Ypsilanti, Michigan. To spread awareness that fresh and affordable produce was available at a local farmer’s market, programmers circulated $5 vegetable “prescriptions” at local clinics and doctor’s offices in underserved neighborhoods.
It was a light bulb moment for Nischan and company—why can’t doctors prescribe vegetables (amounting to dollars available at a local farmer’s market) and see the patient back a month later for results? With $10,000 of seed money per community from Wholesome Wave, a pilot was launched in five New England communities in 2010. “People get hooked on the product,” says Nischan of the FVRx pilot, which expanded to four states in 2011; he predicts 12 more states will be on board by the end of 2012. “When they can find fruits and vegetables of this quality, people will come back. You look at the produce being offered at the few discount grocery chains that operate in these communities and it’s the bottom-of-the-barrel. It’s old. It rots quickly. People are learning that the quality at the markets is the best.”
The third initiative is the biggest and where Nischan—a natural speaker with limitless energy and a fat Rolodex partly padded by his Dressing Room partner, the late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman—is most embedded. The task is tall: to prove to the government, including the powerful senators sitting on agriculture sub-committees, that all of this healthy eating business is working—the two-for-ones, the prescriptions, the on-site education initiatives.
Hard proof, and a little political savvy, is needed to prove that treasury money should be spent on building community-owned grocery co-ops and food carts to help eliminate food deserts. But it means that Nischan needs to be on the road—at a speaking engagement in Boston or off to Europe for work relating to his Ashoka Fellowship or in Washington D.C. for a meeting with an undersecretary about the Health Care Reform Bill. “We’re a nimble organization and can respond to opportunities as they present themselves,” he says of expanding his Wholesome Wave programming in 2012. “I have a restaurateur background, so we know how to get it done.”
How to help: You can donate to the Wholesome Wave cause at the foundation's website.