Today we give you this conversation with Chef Michel Nischan, CEO and President of Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based organization that assists underserved urban and rural communities in 33 states and D.C. in connecting to local agriculture for equitable access to affordable, locally grown foods. He speaks to Theresa about his philosophies around food, fireflies, and the inspiration of his elders:
“My mom…was an amazing farmer and gardener, but she really saw food as much more powerful than that and would teach us simple things like the juice inside a cucumber was rainfall. She would ask us what we thought it was, and we would tell her, ‘Well that’s silly, it’s juice or it’s water,’ and she would remind us that nothing grows without rain. She used food as the ultimate metaphor for lessons in life.”
“You talk about the three sisters and the lore of how the stars in the sky are grains of corn and seeds, and the mapped history of your ancestry is in those seeds in the sky. My mom talked about fireflies the same way. She liked to imagine that one might have been her grandmother winking at her. When you come to a place where practices change and there are no fireflies because the habitat has been decimated … it’s sad, and it makes you mad. When you grew up as a child loving these things and these stories and you try to find them as an adult and you can’t, it can get you pissed off enough to maybe want to do something to help change it. So I think what has a lot to do with my advocacy is wanting things to be the way they were when I was a kid.”
Michel Nischan is a three-time James Beard Foundation award-winning chef and cookbook author with over 30 years of leadership experience advocating for a more sustainable food system. He co-founded Wholesome Wave in 2007, and is also co-founder of the Chef Action Network. His food justice policy work led to benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–federal food-purchasing assistance for no- or low-income individuals–being accepted at farmers markets around the country to help reduce reliance on unhealthy processed food.
Nischan and his team at Wholesome Wave have been at the forefront of advocating for a healthful, just, and sustainable food system, and we’re happy to bring his thoughts to you in this episode. Enjoy.
In 2003, Michel contributed “Fireflies Over Evening Fields” to our print edition of Rootstock, and we have republished it online for your enjoyment.
Editor’s Note: At the time of recording this interview, Michel was chef and owner of The Dressing Room restaurant, which he mentions in the interview. He has since closed the restaurant in order to focus on his work at Wholesome Wave.
Interview with Michel Nischan
November 23, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: My guest today is Michel Nischan, who is—well, I would call you a famous chef, a writer, an activist, and even, now, a head of a nonprofit organization. And certainly, I guess, Michel, I would describe you as someone with about as big a heart as I think I’ve ever met. And a heart just not for food but for where food needs to go, and that is to the people who are hungry, and good food should be for everyone.
MICHEL NISCHAN: Well thank you. Please don’t say anymore. I’m going to wrap this up as a perfectly packaged day, right here. Thank you, Theresa, you’re very generous.
TM: Oh, I’m so delighted that you’re here. And, you know, Michel, you’re a cookbook author, and actually I was going through a couple of your cookbooks before this interview. Simple and Good? Is that—?
MN: Pure and Simple. [unclear] Taste Pure and Simple, right.
TM: Taste Pure and Simple. And then, reading the introduction, what really moved me, and actually moved me from the first time that I met you, was you talked about your mother, and you gave her so much credit for your love of food and for your understanding of agriculture. And you may not remember it, but you did one of, in our first Rootstock, you did an article about your mother and fireflies.
MN: Oh, wow, I do remember that.
TM: Yeah, and I would love for you to talk to us a little bit about your mother and this connection that you have that’s actually brought you, somewhat inspired you, to be where you are today, possibly.
MN: Well, you know, it’s interesting because my mother, really, she did love through food. She saw food as this thing that was important if you wanted to live, but if you dealt with it appropriately and if you cared for it throughout the entire process of growing and cooking, and even the way that you served it, that it could be incredibly powerful, beyond nourishment.
And so we all know that if we don’t eat, we die. We know that if we don’t get certain nutrients, we’re not going to lead perhaps as healthy of a life if we don’t get enough calcium and all that good stuff. I mean, my mom knew that we needed to eat a variety of food and all that good stuff, and she was an amazing farmer and gardener. But she really saw food as much more powerful than that and would teach us simple things like the juice inside of a cucumber was rainfall. She would ask us what we thought it was, and we would tell her, “Well that’s silly, it’s juice or it’s water.” And she would remind us that nothing grows without rain and all that good stuff. And she used food as the ultimate metaphor for lessons in life.
So it’s interesting because I think—I look at the way my wife, Lori, is such an amazing mother to my children, and I watch them do what I did at an early age, and that’s completely take all of that for granted. And realize that because my mother’s lessons to me really came to me later in life, that my kids are really in store for some really great stuff.
So I’d really like to hold up all mothers. And I don’t mean to be sexist in anyway. I believe in equality, but I also believe that sometimes equality kind of starts to neuter the importance of fatherhood and motherhood, which I think are very important spiritual roles in a healthy upbringing. And my mom had it down, my wife’s got it down, and I hope I can be half the father that my mother was a mother to me. So there you have it—I love her.
TM: Yeah, I was so struck, and it really moved me when you talked about fireflies and about how you remember them when you were young, and then you came back to the Midwest and you went down into the fields, and not only were there no fireflies, but you couldn’t really even let your, didn’t even want your own children to be running down the cornfields like you used to do at different times.
MN: Well, you know, it’s interesting because my grandfather’s farm was a very, very healthy farm. It was an organic farm. He didn’t call it organic, he just called it a farm. It was just common sense farming: you grew with what you had and you took care of soil health. And the insect populations and the avian, the bird populations were just astonishing, the different varieties. And my mom and many of my relatives, on my mom’s side of the family especially, really took stock in things like fireflies.
You talk about the Three Sisters and the lore of how the stars in the sky are grains of corn, and seeds, and that the mapped history of your ancestry is in the spirits in those seeds in the sky. And my mom used to talk about fireflies the same way. She liked to imagine that that one might have been her grandmother winking at her or something like that. And then when you come to a place where practice has changed and there are no fireflies because the habitat has been really decimated by inputs and a variety of other things that are happening because of bad decisions in agriculture, it’s sad. It really is sad.
And it makes you mad, when you grew up as a child loving these things and these stories, and then you go to try to find it as an adult and you can’t. It can get you pissed off enough to want to maybe do something to help change it a little bit. So I think that has a lot to do with my advocacy, is just wanting things to be the way they were when I was a kid.
TM: Well, you obviously have learned and know a ton about food, about where it’s produced. And I know that you have a real commitment, you’re the quintessential locavore, especially as a chef. You’re always looking for the—I know at the Dressing Room, and I actually don’t know your entire history, although I’ve read quite a bit about it in the introductions to your cookbooks.
MN: I’m not sure you want to know everything.
TM: It’s true, it’s too much information sometimes, isn’t it? But you know, when I first met you, you were a head chef at the W Hotel in New York City.
MN: Yeah, you believe they trusted me with that? Isn’t that amazing?
TM: Yeah, and in fact, I might’ve had one of the best—I don’t know the Japanese name for it, but it was a special kind of rice cake.
MN: Oh, yeah, the koshihikari rice cake.
TM: Yeah, and it might’ve been the best rice cake out of Japan I’ve ever had. And I was wondering, I mean, what an ama—… To be the W Hotel’s—wow, famous hotel’s—being a star chef there and then moving on to, I think, didn’t you move on to the New York Culinary Institute?
MN: Oh yeah, the French Culinary Institute. I started consulting with them and with Song Airways. I reached a point at Heartbeat where I was getting frustrated because I would stand in the dining room and see all these really wealthy people eating local, organic, sustainable—
TM: And Heartbeat was the name of the restaurant in the W Hotel—beautiful name.
MN: Yeah, Heartbeat Restaurant. A lot of people called it the Heartbeat Hotel—it was pretty funny. That’s an Elvis song, kind of.
Anyway, I reached this point where I realized I wasn’t feeling good. It was around the time that my mother was passing away, which was a long process, which was unfortunate. But it really caused—changed my view of the world pretty remarkably. And I remember standing in the dining room one day, looking at all these affluent people being able to pay forty and fifty dollars an entree to be able to eat local, organic, sustainable food, not processed, and feed themselves well so that they could enjoy well-being through food. And it was a very empty feeling, especially knowing what I knew then, because I was managing four W’s. I was really kind of in the belly of the beast of scale, managing around $150 million a year in food and beverage sales, and realizing that if every white tablecloth tomorrow turned farm-to-table, it would barely make a difference in agricultural production because it’s less than one percent of the restaurant industry are those restaurants.
What about the folks who can afford only to put a box of instant rice and condensed soup together to feed five people for dinner? What choice do they have? Do they really have a right of choice? That’s something that so many people are stumping on these days, the right for this and the right to be individual and do all of these wonderful things. There are some people who can’t even exercise their right to eat a tomato because they can’t afford the tomato. So it was a transformational time for me, was that restaurant and my mom’s passing. So again, my mom kind of like—she always has something to do with something.
It’s amazing, but that’s when I really decided that I wanted to try to go broader and deeper, so I started working with larger companies to help them do more sustainable change. I was working with Derek Lee, I think, because I was working for Song Airways and I wanted to do an organic Caesar chicken salad, and it had Organic Valley chicken breast, Earthbound Organics romaine, Newman’s Own salad dressing, and they were flying 30,000 people a day. So I started working in scale. It wasn’t enough, and I really decided that what I really wanted to be able to do was deal with how people living in poverty could actually become a powerful economic force in changing the food system. So that’s why I did Wholesome Wave.
TM: I can see that your idea for Wholesome Wave wasn’t just because of an accident you had in your garage, although it gave you the time to do it. But it was fermenting wasn’t it, in those early days at the W?
MN: Yeah, it was, it really was. It always really bugged me that the one thing that seems to be missing from our society that used to be important to the Incas, the Mayans, going all the way back in time, was that everybody should have at least access to the same basic ingredients. What you do with them from there is your choice, your decision, your cultural expression, your family recipe, whatever it might be. But the one thing that everybody should be able to do is just have access to good basic food.
TM: You know, we’re going to have to back up, because I really want our listeners to understand and know what Wholesome Wave is.
MN: Oh, okay. So Wholesome Wave is a very decentralized nonprofit. What we do is we kind of generate ideas and then we partner—right now I think we’re partnering with over sixty nonprofit organizations throughout the country. We’ve been around for about five years and we do some innovative things that help people in seriously underserved urban and rural communities be able to exercise that right of choice.
So our first program that we’re best known for, that’s now operating in thirty states and actually has a thumbprint on the farm bill is our doubling program. It’s called the Double Value Coupon Program, is what we kind of call it. We give it a weird name because we don’t believe in branding, so our partners call it whatever they want in their community, so in Michigan it’s Double Up Food Bucks, and in California it’s Market Match; different communities call it different things. But the way it works is we raise private money to double the value of federal food assistance, like food stamps and WIC benefits, if those recipients spend their federal benefits at a farmers’ market on locally grown fruits and vegetables.
And we do that, and it makes great change in communities and it brings really tremendous diversity to the markets, it puts more land in production. We’ve tracked all this data, we’ve surveyed over 2,000 farmers, 1,300 federal benefits recipients, and then we share all of these positive outcomes, the job creation, the change in purchasing habit even after the incentive goes away, and we’ve been able to get Washington to listen a little bit.
TM: That is so—it must be very satisfying. But didn’t you have to go in and change some of the policies in the food stamp world to do that?
MN: Yeah, kind of. What we did was first, we took the liability on the chin ourselves. I was actually telling this story to somebody last night, I can’t remember, that when we started… Because they were surprised how they see EBT now in almost every farmers’ market they go to—that’s Electronic Benefits Transfer. That means that that farmers’ market accepts food stamps. When we started, there were very few markets that had that, because to be able to take food stamps you had to sign these incredibly complex contracts, liability contracts, waivers with data collection, and all these really threatening, looming clauses that basically kind of mortgage your children, your house. So we had nonprofits that were afraid of doing the program.
So I signed for them. These guys aren’t going to rip anybody off—I mean, come on. You talk about trust, you know, you look at liability as an issue. It’s like yeah, you sign on the dotted line, the government can take away everything I own, but I trust the people I work with. I mean some of these groups that we work with are so amazing. There hasn’t been any incidence of fraud, so I was able to sign. I don’t think my wife knows I’ve signed.
TM: I won’t let her listen to this.
MN: No, no, she knows, she knows. Lori’s awesome.
But what we were able to do, once we got enough of the markets open by signing those clauses and those waivers, we were able to get enough data collection where we could go back to Food and Nutrition Services who were really spending a lot of money trying to get people on federal benefits to make healthier food choices, and we went in and said, “Guys, all you have to do is run a two-for-one sale.
That’s really what we’re doing. We’re saying, “Spend your food stamps on anything that you want, but if you come over here and you buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, we’ll double your money. It’s a two-for-one sale.” When we showed them the way that it was working and resulting in an immediate healthy food choice without a complex educational outreach program, that it was just working, they wiped out the waivers. So it’s been a little bit of this crazy year for us because we weren’t quite prepared for it to move this fast. But I think it’s also a very exciting time, and it speaks to the fact that I think everybody, most people in America now, regardless of their income, regardless of their ethnicity, they want to feed their families well.
TM: Of course.
MN: You look at the Fair Food market in Reading Terminal Market, food stamps are almost exclusively spent, by low-income families, on organic meat and dairy. Isn’t that amazing? So it’s like their largest federal benefits—because people—we have a lot of educated consumers out there, in very unlikely places. And one of the things that I’m proud about, about our work, is that it’s busted the myth that poor people are stupid, which is, to me, one of the most humanly insulting things that you can assume about somebody simply because of their income.
So I think the good news for CROPP’s work and Organic Valley and Organic Prairie is that people are starting to realize that if we don’t really change the structure of our economy in a way that equals real employment—because what we really want to do is to be paying the right price for food, but have everybody have the type of job that will allow them to pay that right price for food, and then you have a healthy economy because nothing is false support, right?
TM: Absolutely. You know, I wonder though, how has—it seems to me that this effort should stimulate more farmers’ markets in the food deserts and in places that there haven’t been farmers’ markets.
MN: It has.
TM: I mean, because to be able to find a farmers’ market to spend it, first you have to know you can do that, but how do you get that word out there? Has it stimulated more farmers’ markets?
MN: Yeah, it has. Well, you know, it’s funny because right when we were in the middle of getting all the waiver stuff done, Ag Marketing Service of USDA was doing their census of farmers’ markets, and they were about to announce—proudly announce—that there were 6,030 farmers’ markets, and they had to stop the presses because there were people that were reading the draft report saying, “What about this market, this market, this market?” There are 7,100 markets, and almost 600 of the markets that weren’t counted were in historically excluded communities, seriously underserved urban and rural communities. So these programs do make farmers’ markets viable. So when you hear about the food desert argument—I actually have a problem with the term food desert because I have friends of mine, the Tohono O’odham, the Pima tribe, the Southwest, they think the desert is full of life. So when they hear the term food desert being applied to—you know… So let’s just say places that have only crappy food available.
It’s a lot easier to get four farmers to go and immediately open a farmers’ market and provide really great food access and create jobs for themselves, the farmers, and even people in the community, without having to stick the five-million-dollar grocery store shovel into the ground. And then you have something that, yeah, it’s got a produce section, but it’s still also offering all those highly processed foods, and the jobs it’s offering are minimum wage and actually putting people in that position of not getting quite full-time so that they don’t have to pay their health benefits; they’re getting minimum wage. So they have to apply for food stamps or they can’t put food on their own table, and they become a customer of the very store that’s paying them the wage that doesn’t allow them to rise above that poverty level.
So it’s—we’re more for seeing that if we can get this shift in the food system where more public money goes so that the people living in poverty can take the $80 billion that they spend in food stamps every year on highly processed stuff and start supporting local farmers, we can see real jobs, accepting that revenue.
TM: What a fantastic way that you looked at that and saw that opportunity. And I understand—
MN: Well, it’s a lot of your help too. You know, Organic Valley and CROPP helps us and has been a benefactor for Wholesome Wave, so we’re really grateful for that support.
TM: We’re just so honored to do that. It’s just such a—it’s, what a fantastic opportunity. I’m just curious, too, these sixty, that you mentioned, organizations that you work with, and I’m sure that’s growing. Are they responsible for getting the word out to the neighborhood, “Hey, go to your farmers’ market”?
MN: Yep, they are. And a lot of them are very good at it because it’s why they’re there. And those that weren’t quite yet working with farmers’ markets, because many of them in the underserved communities were really trying to give the people that they were working with, the community members, their best chance of survival, and they always knew food was one of the things that they had the most trouble solving, and if they could solve that it would so greatly improve everybody’s chances. So when they jumped on our programs, we ended up teaching them how to do farmers’ markets. But their ability to reach out in the communities with bubble gum, duct tape, and paper clips—I mean, these guys are like the MacGyvers of community outreach. But they get it done, with almost no resources, because they’re just so devoted, which is why we believe in this decentralized system.
TM: If there are other organizations out there that kind of like want to get on the bandwagon, is there a website? Or how do they—
MN: Yeah, wholesomewave.org. But it’s interesting, we need to be invited into communities because we’re not an endowed foundation—we have to raise money to do the things that we do. So one of the reasons why we’ve been able to spread so quickly is there are communities where there were funders and these really great advocacy groups just came to us and said, “Hey, can you come and help us get this done in our community?” So that’s generally how we work. But you can go to wholesomewave.org. We’re very, very good at people contacting us through the site and getting immediately back with them, and then we can have that conversation of how we can strike up a relationship for change.
The interesting thing about the incentives is that it is languaged to favor locally grown agricultural products and to favor direct farm-to-consumer venues. So that’s pretty strong language. There are also—we call it the Wholesome Wave “Pick-Six,” and I think it’s down to “Pick-Five.” Our “Pick-Six” include the incentives for people on food assistance to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. There’s also a piece in there that would allow, for the first time ever, food stamps to be spent on CSA shares, which is the most inexpensive way to buy locally grown, organic food for your family and provide crop insurance for small scale farmers.
And then there are community food projects grants; there are technology grants so that we can actually look at being able to allow farmers to use something like a smartphone as a cash register so that they can directly receive federal benefits instead of going through third and fourth parties and paying these egregious fees and stuff like that. Seventy million dollars a year extra in specialty crop block grant money, which is more than double for fruits and vegetables. And we’ve already been successful in some states, working with commissioners of agriculture to steer specialty crop money towards the farmers’ markets that provide EBT access and doubling for low-income people to have better access to healthier foods. Because after all, we’re supposed to eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, yet they’re called specialty crops.
One of the things that we’re committed to doing over the next five years, because we see the farm bill cycle as a twenty-five to thirty… It took us like about thirty-five years to really screw it up, it’s going to take us thirty years to fix it. And there are a lot of groups that we’d like to work with on issues other than our own to see that we can get the same kind of success that we’ve been able to have with these incentives.
TM: Yeah, I was just thinking about Fred Kirschenmann, when he says we shouldn’t have a Farm Bill every four years. We should call it the Fifty-Year Farm Bill, and we should have a vision for agriculture for fifty years and then just be updating it [unclear].
MN: Yeah, and have it be a good one and change it in real time. Because, I mean, look at the drought right now. How about if the Farm Bill was just always in place and you could revise it as you went along, and when there’s an emergency like a drought, everybody could come together like real Americans and talk it out and hash it out and get something good done.
TM: Well, I couldn’t be more proud of what you’re doing and all the people around you that you are doing. It is fantastic. You know, it just—there’s so much exciting alignment and activism that we all can be involved in. And here you are, a chef—and so I guess we’re going to have to be winding down—are you still doing some chef work or is that like…?
MN: I am, I am. I own Dressing Room. My wife Lori really runs it; I have a chef, Johnny [unclear]. But I’m there every Friday and Saturday night, working the pass and working with Johnny on new recipes and all that good jazz. And I’m looking at a couple of concepts, dabbling in trying to do more fast casual, more reasonable, locally grown food. I want to try to figure out a way to make a good enough business plan where people involved in that type of a business don’t make a killing but they can pay really good wages and make enough money to put the kids through college but then have something, part of the community, that everybody can afford to participate in. So I’m screwing around with those notions. I have to do many, many, many things or I end up in jail. I’ve got to stay busy so I can stay out of jail.
TM: Including play the guitar and enjoy music and so on.
MN: Well, that calms my nerves so that I don’t do something really rash.
TM: Well, Michel, as always, it’s so much fun talking with you and hearing about your… Do you sleep at night? I mean you must one busy—
MN: Sleep is overrated.
TM: Sleep is overrated. And what about—I really want to also push your cookbooks, which I own two of them. You have three of them, don’t you?
MN: Yeah, I have Taste Pure and Simple which is the first one—that’s out of print; Homegrown Pure and Simple; and then Sustainably Delicious, which is my most recent book.
TM: Well, you know, I’ve tried some of the recipes, especially the desserts, and I’m just delighted, so much, with some of the recipes in there. You know, I’m one of those people who reads recipes and then just forgets about them and then just tries them. But some really creative ideas in them, beautiful ideas of approaching fresh foods. And of course I know your devotion to local foods too.
So thank you for being on this radio with us, Michel.
MN: Oh, thank you for having me.
TM: I’m sure we’re going to have you back again because we’re going to have to have an update how Wholesome Wave is going and hear more about your wife, Lori.
MN: Alright, awesome.
TM: Thank you.
MN: Thanks, Theresa.
Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.