Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” on Naked Juice’s “Are We Becoming Nutrient ‘Dense’?” panel. The Summit will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.
Michel is a three-time James Beard Award-winning chef with more than 30 years of experience advocating for a more healthful, sustainable food system. He is Co-Founder of the Chefs Action Network, as well as Founder and Partner with the late actor Paul Newman of the former Dressing Room Restaurant. Along with his team at Wholesome Wave, Nischan has successfully influenced legislative language for the recently passed Federal Farm Bill, which supports affordable access to healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables for low-income consumers. He’s also the author of three cookbooks and a variety of articles focused on sustainable food systems and social equity through food.
A lifetime Ashoka Fellow, Michel serves as a director on the board of the Jacques Pepin Foundation; on the advisory board of Chef’s Collaborative, The Amazon Conservation Team, TerraVia, and The National Young Farmers Coalition. In Spring 2015, the James Beard Foundation honored Nischan with the Award for 2015 Humanitarian of The Year.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Michel about his work progressing food access among low-income families and his vision for the future food system.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Michel Nischan (MN): As the son of farmers, I have always loved food—growing it, cooking it, and feeding it to people. Even though my parents struggled with low income from time to time, we could feed each other well. Because we grew our food, affordability wasn’t a factor. When my son’s diabetes diagnosis led me to study the impact of diet on preventing and treating this devastating disease, I learned that the majority of folks with type-2 diabetes live with incomes so low that they cannot afford to buy the basic ingredients that could help them. I felt that this could not be allowed to stand, so I founded Wholesome Wave.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
MN: Our work has proven that low-income consumers, regardless of ethnicity or geography, want to feed their families well. If they can’t afford produce, they won’t buy it. But if they can afford it, they will! Because we evaluate the attitudes of low-income consumers about opportunities for affordable produce, as well as the economic impact of what happens when they shift the way they spend their limited resources, we’ve been successful influencing federal policy in support of the nutrition incentive program we helped create. But most of all, the incredible appreciation and enthusiasm we get from the consumers we serve, and the farmers, grocers, and doctors we work with, is what keeps me very excited about this work.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
MN: My mother. She taught me how to butcher, cook, grow, compost, and to love people through food.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
MN: Providing affordability to the 60 million consumers struggling with poverty; to put produce on their tables will have more impact on changing the food system than if every upscale restaurant went farm-to-table tomorrow. Fostering a better-informed society begins with ensuring that every American, regardless of income, can exercise their free right to choose better food for their families. Kids will be healthier, do better in school, grow up as informed consumers. This makes for stronger more vibrant communities based on a solid understanding of the connection between good food, good health, and great neighborhoods. None of this can be achieved by any one person or any one organization. It requires partnership. Our partnership with Naked Juice ensures that consumers, regardless of their income, can make the best choices for themselves and their families.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
MN: When I was a small child, I was in the kitchen helping my mom cook. I remember her giggling repeatedly as she added the more tender vegetables to the pot roast in its final phases of cooking. I asked, “why are you laughing mommy?” She replied, “they’re going to LOVE this!” She truly taught me that you can make people happy through food.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
MN: Make produce affordable, and people will add more to their lives. So many of the 60 million Americans struggling with low incomes get two meals onto the table a day—lots of calories, but limited nutrients. If affordability allows them to add produce to the table, two meals can become three, and the nutrient profile of the meals makes them far healthier. Fruit and vegetable production tends to be more environmentally sustainable than conventional crop agriculture and provides almost three times the economic value. Inspire 60 million people to change their diets and give the means to do so, and they will change the world.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
MN: Replace some of the snacks you rely on with fresh produce. It’s better for you, and better for the planet.
Tune in to Food Tank’s inaugural Boston Summit via free live stream at FoodTank.com on April 1.