Throughout my life, I’ve been lucky to know and work with many amazing people. People who commit themselves to wanting to make change and making people’s lives better. They truly inspire me, and I only can hope that I inspire them, too.
My friend Michel Nischan is just one of those people. A chef, author, restaurateur and CEO, Michel has lead a life dedicated to others, and as a chef for more than 30 years, he has worked tirelessly to feed people healthy and wholesome meals. Growing up on a farm in Illinois, he has an astonishing appreciation for agriculture and for those who work the land. Michel’s connection to farming and food has given him the natural ability to make meals that are not only delicious, but good for us, too. He was also one of the first to really ask questions about where his food comes from and how it was grown, years before it became the news.
Over the past few years, Michel has turned his efforts towards a much larger audience than those who may have visited his restaurants. I think we became such good friends because we share in the belief that everyone, from all walks of life, deserves a good meal, and that food—and the way we eat—is all interconnected. He started his organization Wholesome Wave to prove just that, and to make healthy food affordable to all. He asked me to be on his Board, so you know that I believe in his efforts. His innovative and creative thinking has made it possible for people who are less fortunate, who rely on federal funding programs such as SNAP, to buy the locally grown, fresh produce that we see at farmers markets, and in turn he’s creating jobs and nurturing the farming industry. He is even working with doctors in this country to turn fruits and vegetables into actual prescriptions for good health, encouraging people to buy them and feed them to their families. Michel is not just a visionary because of his many talents in the kitchen, but also because he sees how those talents can reach beyond the menu and into the homes of those who need it most.
Here, Michel and I talk about many issues surrounding how we eat as a country, and what we can all do to make it better:
JA: You’re often heard saying, “food can fix anything.” You know I agree. Tell me why you think so.
MN: I believe food, as a single subject, has more impact on human health, environmental health, economic health, and societal health than any other single issue. Food is our common ground. It gathers us together, no matter what our background or ethnicity might be. If we fix food and help people truly understand the overall positive global impact a healthy food system can have, I believe the world will become fairer, more sustainable, more economically viable, and more delicious.
JA: We’re facing two major issues in America right now when it comes to food. One, millions of Americans cannot afford to feed themselves a healthy meal, and two, there is an epidemic of obesity and diet-related diseases taking place. How can this be?
MN: It is a sad truth that 47 million Americas live in poverty and struggle, often unsuccessfully, to put adequate food on the table. While all of these Americans are eligible for and receive food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP, or food stamps), most families run out of their benefits mid-month and are often left with just a few dollars to spend on dinner for a family of four. Unfortunately, the vast majority of ingredients (corn, wheat, soy) that go into highly processed, unhealthy food items are subsidized by taxpayer dollars. This results in the unhealthiest foods also being the cheapest. If a head of broccoli is $2, yet a package of instant rice with a can of condensed soup costs $2, what would you put in front of your family for dinner? The challenge is that the majority of the least expensive “staple” foods consist of highly processed carbohydrates. These foods cause the body to produce more glucose than the body needs, so the balance of glucose goes to fat stores. Body fat, unfortunately, cannot be converted back into the glucose needed for healthy cell production. When the body needs more glucose, the brain sends the hunger signal and the cycle of eating only highly processed carbohydrates repeats. The result is a cycle of consumers who are unable to afford healthier foods who become obese.
JA: Earlier this year, congress passed the Farm Bill. How do you think it will affect our country’s food system?
MN: In so many ways! There were also many wins for local agriculture. We at Wholesome Wave are proud to announce that, influenced by the explosion of our national Double Value Coupon Program, and other similar community-based programs, the Farm Bill includes the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINIP). Like our Double Value Coupon Program, FINIP funds will double the value of SNAP benefits when spent on local or regionally grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and other eligible retail food venues. FINIP will provide roughly $25 million per year to increase the purchasing power of SNAP benefits when used for healthier food choices. The farm bill also includes:
1) A provision that allows the use of SNAP benefits to purchase Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares;
2) The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, which expands the Farmers Market Promotion Program to include a local and regional food component, while increasing support for Community Food Projects by $15 Million;
3) the Healthy Food Financing Initiative–a program that supports healthy food businesses that operate in under-served communities – has increased from a one-time $25 million investment to $125 million;
4) the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Grant program is re-authorized at $20 million per year, with no less that 5% of funds going to veterans who farm;
5) the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers & Ranchers and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers is now $10 million dollars mandatory, with an additional $20 million available annually, subject to appropriations.
As you can see, there’s an awful lot of good stuff in the bill that benefits under-served community members who are trying to put fresh fruits and vegetables on the dinner table, while supporting small and mid-sized local farmers who often find themselves struggling economically.
JA: As chefs working to improve our country’s food system, we’re always saying that these programs aren’t just handouts but investments. In your experience, what have you seen as proof?
MN: We have seen private funds invested in the Double Value Coupon Program stimulate local economies and small farm economies by generating enough additional income for farmers to make infrastructural investments in their farms, add jobs, diversify crop plantings and more. Every dollar of SNAP generates $1.73 in economic impact, a powerful stimulus, especially if spent at neighborhood small businesses. Private money invested in our Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program has resulted in 43 percent of index patients reducing their BMI in a 16-week obesity intervention. Our Healthy Food Commerce Investments team has seen Program Related Investments they facilitated to small food hub businesses result in improvements that allow these businesses to more than double revenues or reach broader markets. Overall, investments in these kinds of programs have a tremendous economic impact. The farms and food businesses that participate in these programs grow and prosper, while the consumers who purchase and eat healthier foods improve their overall health and minimize expensive health risks.
JA: In your opinion, what are the innovative ways we can be feeding our country better?
MN: I think there is tremendous promise in the community gardening and urban farming movement. Many detractors say the community gardening and farming movement is “quaint” or un-scalable. It depends on your definition of scale. In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech where he highlighted USDA statistics from 1842 that found 48 percent of fresh food consumed by Americans that year were grown in privately held or municipal Victory Gardens. Our population in 1942 was about half of what it is today. If those same gardens were in production today nearly 24 percent of all fresh food consumed this year would come from gardens, not grocery stores or even farmer markets. Imagine what happens to the personal economy of a struggling family when their cost of food becomes the cost of seed or small plants, rather than the cost of a retail tomato. A pound of retail tomatoes costs about $1 to $1.50. A tomato plant costs $3 and yields 15 to 30 pounds, depending on the plant. Community gardening and farming, whether rural or urban, created the very type of scalable reliance that once allowed our nation to expand, long before big equipment and chemical inputs were invented
JA: What you see here is that everything is interconnected. But for people who don’t feel directly affected by issues of hunger or obesity, what can they do?
MN: This is not just about healthy individuals, it’s about healthy communities and healthy economies. I think it is important for everyone to understand that the purchasing choice they make, no matter what the product, results in their money supporting an industry. The more we shift our collective buying power towards locally and regionally grown food, the more our local economies benefit, our neighborhood farmers prosper, and our citizens have the opportunity to become happier and healthier.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.