Can you think of a simple idea that would fight obesity, support local farmers and help the poor, all at once?
Michel Nischan and Gus Schumacher did. Nischan is an award-winning chef, cookbook author and owner of a tony, Westport, Connecticut restaurant co-founded with the late actor Paul Newman. Schumacher is a longtime government official who worked for the state of Massachusetts, the World Bank and as Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the Clinton years.
Their idea? Subsidize poor people who get food stamps or benefits under the federal WIC (Women, Infants, Children) program so that their grocery dollars go twice as far at farmers’ market.
Several years ago, to make it happen, they started the Wholesome Wave Foundation with the help of some well-connected friends, including Newman (before his death in 2008), his daughter Nell, and investors and activists Jesse Fink and his wife Betsy, who own their own small farm in Connecticut.
Now the idea is spreading faster than a zucchini plant in July.
Nischan was one of a few dozen chefs, business people and academics who spoke last week at Cooking for Solutions, a conference and foodfest organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (This is my last blogpost about the event; previous posts are here and here and here.) He’s a soft spoken but charismatic guy, notable not just for his vision but because he sweats the details which, I suppose, is part of being a good chef and restaurant owner.
Wholesome Wave began working with about a dozen farm markets in Connecticut, Massachusetts and California in 2008. This year, Nischan says, the program, called Nourishing Neighborhoods, expects to operate at 160 markets in 18 states and Washington, D.C.
Among other things, Wholesome Wave is disproving the notion that poor people either don’t care or don’t know enough to buy healthy food. “The fear that some people had was that we would go into these communities, and it wouldn’t work,” Nischan said. “There was a wide assumption that people in poor communities didn’t know what to do with fresh food.”
Instead, he said: “Everywhere we go, people flood the farmers’ markets and buy fresh fruits and vegetables. They actually buy with a vengeance.”
They do so because of an incentive: Double Value Coupons, which double the value of food stamps (which are now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) when used at participating markets.
Said Nischan: “Use your food stamps for anything you want, but if you choose locally grown fruits and vegetables, we’ll double your money.”
Money to supplement the federal dollars comes mostly from foundations (here’s a list), as well as state governments, a handful of corporate grants and individuals–basically, wherever Nischan can get it. In Rhode Island, for example, a project called Farm Fresh Rhode Island combines a small grant from Wholesome Wave with money for the state health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control’s division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.
Interestingly, Nischan and Schumacher both grew up on farms. Schumacher was raised on a root vegetable farm in Lexington, Massachusetts. Nischan spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in Missouri.
Later, he worked as a chef at upscale restaurants in New York, specializing in local and organic food. “I spent years grappling with the guilt of being able to provide locally and regionally grown food only to folks who can afford fine living,” he once said. Only after his son was diagnosed with diabetes in the mid-1990s did he broaden his focus to include the relationship among food, health, the environment and economics.
He wrote on Wholesome Wave’s blog:
The more research I did, the more I learned how food as a single subject has more of an impact on human health, societal health, environmental health, and economic health than any other single subject. I once thought that food was everything because I was a chef. But when Chris got sick, I learned that food is everything period.
Nischan doesn’t think that putting more supermarkets in low-income communities will do much to solve the obesity crisis. Supermarkets historically failed in poor neighborhoods because people didn’t have enough money to spend. Even now, when poor people travel to distant supermarkets to shop, they typically don’t buy fruits and vegetables; they buy cheaper sources of calories like Minute Rice and Hamburger Helper. The obesity problem, in other words, is partly an income problem; the average SNAP benefit per person is just $3 a day, he said.
To steer more food stamp dollars to farm markets, Nischan wants to enlist natural allies–American farmers who grow fruits and vegetables and who, for the most part, get little help from farm subsidies that flow to those who grow corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat.
“Our goal is policy change,” Nischan said. “Our target is the next farm bill.”