Eating Better and More Sustainably with Wholesome Wave’s Michel Nischan
July 6, 2011
The Huffington Post named Michel Nischan a “gamechanger,” and it’s easy to see why: The green eating aficionado is a co-founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave and a storied restaurateur and chef with a long history of farm-to-table sourcing. But it wasn’t until his son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes that his motivation really took form.
Nischan mentions that underserved communities, both urban and rural, don’t have access to sustainable, fresh, healthy food sources, and some do not even realize that they’re missing out. Yet Nischan found that many people would want to eat better and more sustainably if they had affordable means to do so. He co-founded Wholesome Wave in 2007 to serve that very purpose.
“There are federal benefits that exist that are so thinly spread that there is not enough for folks to feed their families well,” Nischan says. “We go into communities and provide an incentive. If these folks come to a farmer’s market or a farm stand or a CSA and spend their money on locally grown fruits and vegetables, we double their money.”
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Michel Nischan, who’s the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Wholesome Wave. Welcome to Green is Good, Michel Nischan.
MICHEL NISCHAN: Thanks, John. It’s great to be here. I appreciate your having me on.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get into Wholesome Wave, I just have to share with our listeners, you are one of the rock stars of the green eating revolution. You’ve been named and honored as one of the Huffington Post’s game changers. You have a restaurant. We’re going to talk about what the Obama Administration is doing with you. You rock, and we are so honored to have you on with us today.
MICHEL NISCHAN: Oh, man, listen. It’s great to be on. I appreciate the kindness. I just love staying busy because it keeps me out of trouble.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Michel, a couple things. First of all, we want our guests to share with our listeners the journey. You are a cofounder of Wholesome Wave with Michael Batterberry and Gus Schumacher. How did you come up with this idea for Wholesome Wave? For our listeners out there, if you have your iPad open, laptop, desktop, go to wholesomewave.org to check out the great things that Michel’s doing. Share with us the journey.
MICHEL NISCHAN: The journey, John, started years ago. I’ve been a local food chef from the very beginning. I’ve been a chef for about 30 years. Both my parents were farmers, so when I became a chef, I really wanted to buy from farmers because I felt, as a chef, I would be giving folks the best food, only to find out that the farmers had gone away, that the opportunity to buy from local farmers was quickly becoming a thing of the past. I really made it a point in my career to support local producers from the very beginning. About halfway through, about 16 years ago, my son, Chris, who’s now 22, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was a real wake-up call for me. At the time, I was running a high-profile restaurant, winning awards, doing all that good stuff, busy, great career trajectory, buying as local as I could, seeing some movement. But when Chris became ill and I started studying diabetes, I stated learning about Type 2 diabetes, which is the most prevalent. Honestly, if we diagnosed everybody that’s actually suffering from the disease in the U.S., over 40 million people have Type 2 diabetes. It’s terrible, and it’s most prevalent in these seriously underserved urban and rural communities. Right around the time that I was realizing that, as a white tablecloth chef, I wasn’t doing enough, because if every white tablecloth restaurant tomorrow in the country went farm to table tomorrow, it wouldn’t even make a blip on the radar screen because we represent probably less than 2% of the overall dining industry, the eating out industry. But I also realized that in these seriously underserved urban and rural communities that these folks that were suffering from diabetes were suffering because they didn’t have access and affordability to choose the kind of food I was serving in my restaurant. I felt this terrible pang to do something about it. I was almost frustrated to the point of leaving the business, and that’s when Michael Batterberry, who was a mentor of mine, said, “Michel, you should do something about this.” I was, at the time, a board member of Chefs’ Collaborative, which is a chefs’ organization working on sustainable food system choices, but again, at the time, was mostly white tablecloth restaurants. Michael introduced me to Gus Schumacher, who, at that time, was the Undersecretary of Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services in the USDA under the Clinton Administration. He said, “This guy feels the same way you do, that if you don’t make sustainable food available to everybody, that it will never come to scale.” So, Gus and I became fast friends, started goofing around with some really cool little non-profit projects, and started coming in contact with these communities and learning that people do want better food choices for their family, that they are interested in things like fruits and vegetables, that they’re culturally connected, in many cases, to cooking, and those who aren’t know that if they could learn how to cook and they could afford better food, that they could provide a better life for their family. So, contrary to popular American belief, we found it not to be true. I founded Wholesome Wave in June 2007, and Gus and I agreed from the very beginning with Michael that one of the hallmarks of our program would be to provide affordability in these underserved communities to demonstrate that these folks do want to feed their families well and that, in doing so, that they can provide financial support for our farmers who are also struggling, and potentially become the heroes of a changed food system. So, that’s the history in as short a nutshell as I could make it.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Sure. Share with us your mission. What is Wholesome Wave’s mission? We’re on your website. It’s a gorgeous website. Again, for our listeners out there, please go and check out Michel’s beautiful website, www.wholesomewave.org. What’s the mission? What are you trying to achieve on a regular basis?
MICHEL NISCHAN: We have our mission statement, but to put it in direct, personal terms, what we’re trying to do is prove that where access and affordability meet in these forgotten communities, that change can happen and that these communities can become meaningful participants in changing our food system to a more local, sustainable, organically-based food system that will be better for the health of the environment, the health of the economy, human health, all of these things will benefit as a result of being able to make positive change, and that these communities can play a lead role in getting that done. We really believe it. We also believe that in doing so, when these folks have the opportunity to make the right food choices, it’s going to reduce healthcare costs, which is something that would benefit the entire nation. I think the opportunity to have people in these seriously underserved communities actually become heroes of this change could erase a lot of the structural racism and do a lot of healing and go a long way to fix some of the problems and the assumptions that have been so wrong for so long.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love your tagline here at the top of your website, nourishing neighborhoods across America. That is just so powerful, simple.
MICHEL NISCHAN: I’m glad you love that. We think nourishing is a powerful word.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: It is. Before we go on to the specifics about this wonderful program, Wholesome Wave, here’s something I want our listeners to understand what you’re really accomplishing, how big your movement really has gotten. The Obama Administration recently named Wholesome Wave as one of the five major strategy groups making a difference in the fight against childhood obesity, and its White House taskforce on childhood obesity reports to the President. Come on. Talk about changing the world, one or two or three committed human beings changing the world with your business concept and your business venture. Congratulations, but tell us how that came about and what that really means to the Wholesome Wave, how that really gives velocity behind your Wholesome Wave.
MICHEL NISCHAN: It’s interesting, John, because what we do in these communities, we raise private money so that we can double the value of existing federal food assistance benefits like SNAP, which is formerly known as food stamps, and WIC, which is a supplemental nutrition assistance program for women, infants, and children, at-risk seniors, etc. They’re federal benefits that exist that are so thinly spread that they’re still not enough for folks to feed their families well. We go into these communities and provide an incentive. If these folks spend their benefits on whatever they can legally spend them on, that’s fine. But if they come to a farmers’ market or a farm stand or a CSA and they spend them on locally grown fruits and vegetables, we double their money. It’s an incentive. What we do, then, is study that activity. We survey federal food assistance recipients, we survey the farmers, we track the sales and the redemption rates of the federal benefits at markets that previously accepted benefits but didn’t do incentives. What happens to the redemption rates? And, then what happens when the incentives go away? We take all of this information and we have found that it is absolutely proving that people want better food, that they’re interested in supporting local farmers and local businesses, that it’s important that they see these markets and the engagement and the social activity that happens at markets as something that’s benefiting their community and is allowing them to fully participate. We’ve seen incredible redemption rate increases in these federal food assistance benefits when the incentives come in. Times where some of our non-profit partners have run out of money and the incentives went away, the food assistance consumers continued to come to the market and shop. Our average redemption rate increases almost 400%. The drop-off is only 20%, so there’s still a 320% net increase in the purchasing activity at these markets when the incentives go away. Our data we share with Washington, and that’s Gus’s kudos. Gus, instead of taking a multimillion-dollar lobbying job, he was the third highest position in USDA. If the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary were in a plane crash, Gus would have been the Secretary of Agriculture. He was that high up the food chain. He could have gotten a lucrative lobbying job, but he’s so devoted to seeing that people in underserved communities can have access to good, healthy, locally-grown foods, that he chose to do this work. He still has that full access, so we have access to all of the top federal agencies, directly the Undersecretary, the elected officials, the administrative staff, and we share and celebrate this great news and in sharing and celebrating the great news and putting real bona fide statistics behind it, we’ve been able to achieve some administrative-level policy changes. I think it’s awesome. I believe it’s Gus’s work that’s led to those great things. I think the Obama Administration couldn’t help but take notice because of the great work that Gus has been doing for us in Washington. It was a great win for us to be included, and we’re humbled by it. I think it’s largely responsible for why, after just four short years, we’re now in 30 states and almost 300 markets deploying these programs.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thirty states and 300 markets.
MICHEL NISCHAN: Yes.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Congratulations. One thing I want to understand because I see it on the site, but I want to understand it from your perspective and I want our listeners to understand it, the double value coupon. Explain that a little bit more so our listeners who go to your site can hear it from you how that works.
MICHEL NISCHAN: Right. In a market, we deploy through non-profit partners, we have 50 of them now. These are non-profits in these communities who love their communities, want to make the lives of their communities better, improve the lives and the lifestyle. Food access is always a big issue for them. We work through these communities. They’ve already established trust. They live there. They’re well known there. They have the respect. We don’t like to go in and hang up our shingles, so we deploy through these non-profits, and we basically give them the seed money to start the incentive programs. We provide them with technical assistance and training, teach them how to do the data collection, and then help them write grants to get matching funds to support the programs, and then they’re off and running. They have money in their banks, so a SNAP recipient will come to a farmers’ market. The non-profit acts like the cashier. They’ll swipe the SNAP or the food stamp card. If a recipient would like to swipe their card for $10, then they’re given $20 in tokens, and the tokens are like cash. They spend the cash at the farmers’ market. The farmers come at the end of the day, turn in the tokens, and they get a check in return so that they don’t have to wait for their money. It works like the regular course of business in the farmers’ market arena in that world. They get money the same day or within a week. They don’t have to wait for it, but the consumers go and swipe their card and basically get double their money for fresh fruits and vegetables.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Talk about two things. Since you are a farmers’ market expert, first of all, I want our listeners, who love farmers’ markets and they’re growing across America, the whole movement, what’s your top tip for shopping at a farmers’ market?
MICHEL NISCHAN: My top tip for shopping at a farmers’ market is show up.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK, I like that.
MICHEL NISCHAN: It’s interesting because a lot of people say they want farmers’ markets and think no, I don’t time to go to the farmers’ market today. The interesting thing about a lot of markets is that people forget that farming is a seven-day-a-week, often 15-hour-a-day job, just doing the farming. To get a farmer to leave his farm to go and set up a market, which they need to do because they really benefit from those retail sales, it often makes the difference for them as to whether they skip a couple of mortgage payments in the winter or not. They take that trouble. It’s only one day a week in many cases, so it’s really important that people who are interested in farmers’ markets, believe in local food, make it a ritual to mark on their calendar what that market day is, and show up. I’m in the restaurant business. I’ve been a chef for 30 years. I know who my regular customers are, and boy, do I appreciate them. I let them know how much I appreciate them, and farmers do the same thing. When you really want to have that type of direct relationship with a farmer where they’ll help you solve your gardening problems, they’ll give you recipes, they’ll give you advice. If they know you’re falling on hard times, they’ll give you a discount. That relationship can only be built if you show up, and if you show up regularly. They will get to know who you are. They will appreciate it, and then you have a vibrant marketplace.
MIKE BRADY: Michel, you bring up such a great point about the whole local aspect. It occurred to me, too, that if you make it a point to go shopping on that appointed day, whenever the farmers’ market closest to you is actually going on, you’re also going to be realizing some energy savings, aren’t you?
MICHEL NISCHAN: You’re absolutely right, Mike. It’s interesting. They haven’t fully cleaned the data yet, but we’re privy to the farmers’ markets surveyed, and there’s a very good chance that it’s going to become official soon that there are now more than 7,000 farmers’ markets in the United States. In many states, they’re literally everywhere. When you can have a market that’s within walking distance or a short drive. The great thing about the food at farmers’ markets is that you can buy a week’s worth of stuff, and after a week in your fridge, it’s going to be in better condition than anything you’re going to buy at a grocery store. Most of the stuff in the grocery system goes through regional redistribution warehouses. Even if you’re in Massachusetts, if you’re buying from a grocery store where the regional redistribution warehouse is in Vermont, the Massachusetts food goes to Vermont, gets checked, tagged, PLUed, packaged, and then sent back to Massachusetts. Forget about the stuff that comes from California or Guatemala. When you look at the fact that the farmers’ market is right there, you’re reducing fossil fuel usage, not only of your own, but you’re buying product that has not made those rounds back and forth to warehouses, etc. There have been a lot of folks arguing that you look at all these small trucks of the farmers having to go to the market, that that’s fossil fuel. Yeah, it’s fossil fuel, but I think when you look at the market and the grocery store trips and you put everything into perspective, there’s some energy savings there.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Michel, there has to be an energy savings there, but you talk about being in 30 states now and 300 markets, which in four years, is just simply incredible, no doubt. Are you planning to expand to more farmers’ markets and to outside of the farmers’ market network?
MICHEL NISCHAN: It’s interesting that you ask that, John. We’re very, very interested in what the implications are for full-time public markets. We would love, for instance, to be able to have incentives available in the food system at any place that sells fruits and vegetables, the grocery store. One of the things that we sadly are very aware of because of the work that we do is that most people on food stamps actually shop late at night because, contrary to the popular belief of some of the folks that are currently in office and recently elected, trying to portray people on food stamps as wasteful abusers of federal handouts. These are folks that are already working two and three part-time jobs. Most of them shop after 10:00 at night at grocery stores that are open 24 hours because it’s the only time that they can do their shopping. Farmers markets aren’t open late at night. They’re not open seven days a week. They’re open for a shorter period of time, but the waivers to allow that to happen, there are a variety of implications of favoring one retail product over another, favoring one population over another, unfair trade advantage. The opportunity for lawsuits and the opportunity for regulatory clashes in traditional retail formats where, basically, the premise is that once any retail food has made it past the back dock of a retail food establishment, all products are created and should be treated equally. It’s just too difficult right now, so we’re exploring how we can interact with public markets that sell locally grown fruits and vegetables. We’re looking at the potential for community-owned grocery co-ops to see if there are any implications there. More than anything, not only do we have the doubling, we also have a fruit and vegetable prescription program that we’re piloting this year where we’ve raised enough money in eight communities to give doctors at health clinics enough benefit to prescribe enough resource so an entire at-risk family can increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables a serving per day per person. Because it’s a prescription, they come back once a month and they’re measured for height, weight, and blood pressure, and BMI, body mass index. We believe this is important because there is a provision in Title 6 of the health bill that allows the government to start reimbursing healthcare providers to provide measurable prevention, rather than just reimbursing them for providing treatment. So, the implications for the business plans of healthcare insurance companies are huge. Wouldn’t it be lovely if somebody who’s on universal healthcare from an underserved community goes to a doctor and they say, “You’re prediabetic. If you don’t lose 50 pounds, change your diet, and change your exercise, you’re going to be diabetic within a year, and your life expectancy is going to be cut by a third. We can help you. Here’s your prescription for the fruits and vegetables you need to change your diet.” The impact of that on the local agricultural economy would be huge. We believe the impact on reducing healthcare costs would be dramatic, and that it would constitute a program, eventually, that would have the chance of paying for itself. We do a variety of these styles of programs, also to prove that in these communities, when you provide the affordability, it creates food commerce. The opportunity to start rebuilding these communities through food businesses that could actually accept these benefits if they become a permanent part of the American landscape, that’s huge. I mean, John, one of the things that most people don’t understand is that this year alone, just in food stamp benefits, $82 billion in one year. So, imagine if we could just get 5% of that to go to locally grown fruits and vegetables. It would be millennia beyond the cash business that farmers’ markets do right now. The opportunity to set up and build food businesses around that type of healthy food commerce are real.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. Michel, we’re almost out of time here. I want to ask you for any last comments you have to share with our listeners before we have to sign off. You’re always invited to come back. We always want to hear updates on the amazing story of Wholesome Wave. Please share any last comments you have in the last minute or so.
MICHEL NISCHAN: I appreciate that, John. My message to your listeners, first of all, the fact that they’re listening, they’re all just doing a great job, obviously. Whatever they could do just to understand that folks in these communities want the same things they do. They want to feed their families better. In our survey, we surveyed over 700 SNAP consumers, food stamp consumers. The number one reason why they stop at the markets is quality of produce. Number two is that they accept SNAP benefits with the discount. Number three is supporting local farmers, and price with the incentives is number six. When you look at that, they want the same thing that all Americans want. The best thing that we can do as a population is understand that people in underserved communities are just like everybody else. The only thing that they don’t have that a lot of everybody else has is, actually, the choice to make that choice. It’s an interesting thing. Anything that they can do in their communities to support their farmers’ markets that are near underserved communities by volunteering or donating, we encourage you to engage directly in your local community through your farmers, and reach these folks and give them a chance to raise their kids well.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you so much. For our listeners out there, again, get involved and see all the great work Michel’s doing and get inspired. Please go to www.wholesomewave.org. Michel Nischan, you are a visionary epicurean eco-preneur, and truly living proof that green is good.
MICHEL NISCHAN: Thanks a million, John.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That was a mouthful.