Food Party Politics: Talking With Wholesome Wave's Nischan

If the "good food" movement is going to unite into a formidable political force for change -- something like a national Food Party -- then it's going to have to rely in part on existing groups and activists as a foundation.

Chef Michel Nischan is a three-time James Beard Foundation award winner, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He's also the founder and CEO of the non-profit organization Wholesome Wave. Wholesome Wave, started in 2007, has a stated goal of inspiring "underserved consumers to make healthier food choices by increasing affordable access to fresh, local and regional food."

Nischan is elbow-deep in the mechanics of food policy and knows how the machine works. Nichan is also genial and energetic, and refreshingly candid about anti-nutrition program politicians. The bottom line is the guy cares deeply about getting healthy food into the hands of poverty stricken Americans.

And most important, Wholesome Wave has scored actual policy victories.

Working from a leadership position with others in the field, Wholesome Wave played a significant role in securing the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program as part of the current Farm Bill -- $100m to match SNAP when spent on fruits and vegetables.

There's plenty to talk to Nischan about food wise, but we kept the focus on the politics and policy of food.


The Republic of Awesome: Do you consider yourself [Wholesome Wave] part of the "good food" movement?

Michel Nischan: Absolutely. How can it be a good food movement if not every living American has the opportunity to participate in good food?

ROA: What role does Wholesome Wave play in the food movement?

MN: We create programs, like FVRx, which allows doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables, but we also create communities of practice through a national network -- convening groups that all align on the fact that people struggling with poverty should have equitable access to healthy food. We create an environment that allows that to happen.

We're a goodwill aggregator and collaborator in the space. We've been able to expand our reach because we partner with community-based non-profits from small to larger operations like the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.

Finding something that everyone can align on rather than compete is the magical thing we do - and that's getting everyone to agree that all Americans regardless of income can put good quality ingredients on the dinner table for their family.

ROA: You're friends with chef Rick Bayless, who caught some heat for a piece he wrote a on GMOs and corn varieties in Mexico. Is there a food policy issue you try and avoid?

MN: We solely focus on affordable access to food. Its tempting to get involved in every issue that involves food, but affordable access directly impacts an easily measurable 45-50 million people depending on what the economy is doing.

What's interesting is that we also help them understand the powerful consumer base that they are, and how that can translate to the polls. There's good 20 plus million from that group of 45-50 million that are voting age that if they knew that their collective purchasing power was almost $150 billon a year just in retail food, and that they could make a difference going to the polls to vote on candidates based on their food positions, there's real potential power in that.

We do intend to move into things like professionalizing community gardening and farming so it can be seen as a small business opportunity and the role that food waste can play in affordable access, but access does takes 100% of all of our focus.

ROA: How do you activate this core group of 20 million that you have identified, and actually get them to turn out and vote for what you want?

MN: That's exactly what we're working on now. Another chef friend of mine is Tom Colicchio and his organization Food Policy Action scores candidates on food and farm votes in an effort to bring more attention to how members of Congress vote on food issues.

There's an interesting sociology in underserved communities. You have a single parent rubbing two pennies together to keep their child alive and they know they need to be feeding their children better food. And when they have an opportunity to feed their kids better food because someone has made it possible and affordable - then they really participate in our programs with vigor. So we are interested in more deeply engaging these consumers with the notion that you have purchasing power, to say to them when you look at yourself in the context of all the other Americans living in poverty, you have a lot of power. And if you start showing up at the polls and express the kind of candidates you want to see in office, you can actually be heroes in changing our food system.

So our goal is to reach out to our members in a way that emboldens them and encourages them to get out to the polls. We also recognize that it's a heavy lift and is going to take some time. These are disenfranchised communities and there's not a lot of infrastructure. Many are single parents who on Election Day are working two of their three part time jobs.

But it is something we are willing to invest our time in.

The thing I love about the idea of voting for candidates based on food issues is how clear the contrast is. Take for example, a person that is either pro-choice or pro-life for whatever reason. That does not make them a good or bad person either way, but it has been a very effective tool for campaigns to get people to vote up or down on someone based on whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.

But to me, if someone is voting to keep good food off the plates of school children, they're likely not a very good person.

ROA: How important is SNAP still?

MN: It's critical. It's the only program that we have that truly works within the context of the daily lives of people struggling with poverty. SNAP has one of the lowest government fraud rates backed by data, its effective, people get their card, they work their jobs and they can shop when its convenient, which is important because many SNAP customers shop after 10 pm.

SNAP works. It keeps people out of poverty when they hit hard times. And the average recipient usually cycle off the program in eight to eleven months. Also the billions spent on SNAP keep the lights on in the grocery stores, they help pay everyone from the checkers to the truck driver. You're basically cutting $80 billion in retail food value out of the economy every year if you take SNAP away.

Cutting SNAP is just one of those rally points for angry people who have never looked in the face of someone who is truly poor.

ROA: There's a fierce debate in the nutrition community about forcing certain eating habitats with SNAP in order to encourage healthier consumption. Where do you land on this issue?

MN: I've always landed on not going there. A little tough right now because the SNAP program is so thin and the people that rely on it are in such a hard-pressed position. If you open the door, first restricting say...sugary soda purchases, the question becomes what gets restricted next? Another big problem is the lack of stores that sell healthy food in many of the communities where SNAP is used. Until retailors in underserved communities start carrying healthy food and the depth of stock that SNAP recipients need, you can't restrict choice.

ROA: I view day-to-day food policy as the regular season and the federal farm bill as the Superbowl. How focused are you on the upcoming 2018 farm bill?

MN: Laser focused.

We're working with a variety of other groups doing incentive programs. We just had a summit in January where we brought in organizations interested in incentive programs. As an effective group that's part of the good food movement we actually got $100 million in the Food Insecurity and Incentive program in the last farm bill.

So for the next farm bill what we intend to do is demonstrate how effective these programs are and show the health benefits behind increased consumption and access for fresh fruits and vegetables. And we'd like to see the $100 million go up significantly.

ROA: Do you see the farm bill as holistic legislation? Are you willing to fight for say farm bill conservation efforts that might be an environmental group issue as long as the green group help you fight to strengthen nutrition?

MN: That's an interesting question; nobody has ever asked us to do that. For Wholesome Wave we don't pretend to be experts on everything and I'm always hesitant as an organization to take a stance on an issue that we're not invested in or have expertise in.

ROA: There's been an increased interest in activism from the culinary and chef community, with a group of chefs recently storming Capital Hill. Do you think chefs have a hard time being business people and activists? Restaurant margins are often tight and it may be financially unfeasible for a chef to do the responsible thing. Is that a blind spot in chef activism? (Nischan is involved with the Chef Action Network and the James Beard Foundation's Chef Activism Boot Camp).

MN: Not at all. I've been dealing with sourcing good ingredients cheaply since I first became a chef in1981. I went to farmers outside of Milwaukee and paid in advance to local farmers, did whatever it took to bring them into the process.

What really excites me is someone that runs a 1,500 room hotel. You start priming the pump with these guys that make huge purchasing decisions. So you start with one thing like wild salmon. You tell them if they only buy wild caught salmon that translates into two extra boats going out to meet the demand, because these big operations essentially have the demand of 15 restaurants. When you get these big guys involved it is one step at a time and you have to give the supply chain an opportunity to respond to new demand.

It took us 75 years to fuck up our supply chain to have the system we have now. It's going to take us 50 years to unwind it. It's not a blind spot at all, chefs want to do good, but they keep bumping up against infrastructural issues.

ROA: Finally, what's the one question you would ask presidential candidates about food or farming?

MN: What is your plan to ensure that good quality, healthy food is available and affordable for all American's, regardless of their income?