Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Michel Nischan, founder, CEO and president at Wholesome Wave, who was one of the speakers at the 2015 Food Tank Summit in partnership with The George Washington University.
Food Tank (FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?
Michel Nischan (MN): Food, as a single subject, has more impact on human health, economic health, community health, and environmental health than any other subject. If we fix food, we have the ability to fix so many problems. It will take all of us – chefs, consumers, politicians, farmers, food producers of all sizes, and nonprofit leaders – to make this change.
FT: How are you contributing to building a better food system?
MN: In 2007, I founded Wholesome Wave. We focus on tackling the issue of affordable access by making healthy, locally-grown foods more affordable and accessible for underserved consumers. We address affordability through two nutrition incentive programs: the Double Value Coupon Program and the Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program. Accessibility is emphasized through our supply chain work with food hubs: retail outlets and convenience stores.
The Double Value Coupon Program is a national network of nutrition incentive programs, operated at farmers markets in 25 states and Washington D.C. These programs allow federal benefit consumers, i.e. those who receive SNAP (formerly known as food stamps); Women, Infants and Children (WIC) vouchers; and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers, to receive a monetary incentive when they spend their benefits at farmers markets on locally grown produce. Consumers increase their purchase and consumption of healthy foods, farmers see increased revenue, and dollars stay within the local economy.
Our Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) operates within the health care setting by providing at-risk families affected by diet-related diseases with access to fresh fruits and vegetables, through local partnerships with health care providers, farmers markets, and retail food outlets. Patients receive a prescription, typically worth US$1 per day per family member, redeemable at participating farmers markets and/or retail outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Our programs improve the health of low-income consumers, generate additional revenue for small and mid-sized farms, and boost local economies by keeping community dollars local. More information on our programs is available at our website.
FT: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization’s goals?
MN: Our goal is to shift the way that public and private funds are spent to result in a better outcome for everyone. We believe there is plenty of money in the system; it just needs to be reallocated to generate a better outcome. For example, per capita medical spending is US$2,741 higher for people with obesity than for normal-weight individuals, yet we spend less than two dollars per person on prevention. Our programs allow decision makers to imagine what would happen if we invest in food up front, rather than treatment at the back end of the current system.
Making policy change takes time, however. It took our partners and Wholesome Wave seven years before healthy food nutrition incentives appeared in federal legislation through this year’s Farm Bill. We want to see similar success for our Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program in healthcare legislation, but recognize that is going to take time, data, and a lot of collaboration from all sectors.
FT: Who is your food hero and why?
MN: I have too many food heroes to list. Near the top of the list would be the late James Beard. His understanding of the broader impact of food lives in his quote: “Food is our common ground.” There are many in the chef community who are long-standing heroes. Nora Pouillon, Rick Bayless, Peter Hoffman, Alice Waters, Greg Higgins, and Sam Hayward, to name a sparse few who truly walk the life. There are new voices who are having a significant impact because of the scale of their business and media platforms, like José Andrés and Tom Colicchio, who have significant impact and a deep commitment to making change through food.
Then there are those who remain on the land; multi-generational farmers following time-honored production methods that take the environment and food-producing humans into full consideration. And those returning to the land, including young people fresh out of college, urban and rural families who struggle with poverty and now grow their own food, and veterans returning from conflict, who find solace in stewarding the earth and feeding people.
We all can – and should be – food heroes.
FT: In 140 characters or less, what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?
MN: Be a consumer hero! Every dollar spent on locally grown, sustainably/humanely produced food can benefit our health, communities & farmers.