Changing the world — one farmer's market at a time

A Fairfield man is working to give those living in poverty healthier food choices, and in doing so help local economies.

Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave. Contr. photo.

Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave. (Contributed photo)

Michel Nischan, co-founder, CEO and president of national organization Wholesome Wave, is working to foster links between local agriculture and the underserved in urban and rural communities across the United States. Wholesome Wave runs programs to increase affordability and access to healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables, benefiting the underserved population.

“I’m laser focused on getting people who are struggling with poverty high-quality fruits and vegetables,” said Nischan, who worked on his grandparents’ Missouri farm each summer while growing up. “We knew what it was to be poor but not hungry,” said Nischan. “We would cook, hunt, can, pickle, fry, butcher, clean fish, braise, smoke and farm all summer.”

Nischan draws motivation from his knowledge of both the farm and the impoverished. “I know that you can be poor, but if you have access to really good food, kids can still do well in school and can grow up strong.”

Nischan landed a job cooking in a truck stop after graduating from high school, and worked his way up in the restaurant world, eventually becoming a chef in upscale Connecticut restaurants and opening Miche Mache, a Zagat top-ten restaurant, in Norwalk in 1991.

When his son was diagnosed with diabetes, Nischan said, “I felt I needed to change the way I cook.” Nischan founded Wholesome Wave in 2007.

The nonprofit has partnered with community organizations to implement four programs: double-value coupons, fruit and vegetable prescriptions, healthy food commerce investments and an innovations lab. According to Wholesome Wave’s website, programs are in place in 28 states and the District of Columbia with more than 60 community-based organizations. The organization says it manages more than 400 farm-to-retail venues, involving more than 3,200 American farmers.

Double value

Nischan explained that the double-value coupon program does what it says — doubles the value of federal nutrition assistance benefits (formerly known as food stamps and other federal benefit programs) when they are spent on fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. Launched in 2008 at markets in Connecticut, California, New York and Massachusetts, the now nationwide program has increased farmers’ revenue by nearly $2.4 million in federal benefit and incentive purchases, according to the organization’s website.

Wholesome Wave puts the number of participating shoppers in the double-value coupon program at 40,000 in 2012 — up from 20,000 in 2010.

Nischan believes shifting the way the approximately $80 billion in federal nutrition benefits is being spent annually will boost the local food business as well as prevent and treat diet-related diseases. Treatment of these chronic illnesses “costs north of half a trillion dollars a year,” said Nischan. “It costs less to allow families to eat well and prevent the disease, than it does to have one family member contract the disease.”

Prescriptions for produce

To increase the impact of fresh produce on disease prevention and treatment, Wholesome Wave’s second program — fruit and vegetable prescriptions —  allows health care providers literally to write prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, redeemable at participating farmers’ markets, said Nischan. Nischan says the prescription program provides assistance to people at risk of developing diet-related illness such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, while simultaneously benefiting small- to mid-sized farmers.

Healthy food investments

Wholesome Wave’s third program, healthy food commerce investments, was launched in 2011 to help develop ways for regional farms to safely and efficiently bring produce to institutional buyers such as schools and hospitals. Wholesome Wave directs capital and business development assistance to food distribution and processing enterprises, referred to as “healthy food hubs.” The hubs are centrally located facilities for the collection, storage, processing, distribution and marketing of regionally produced food.

Wholesome Wave recently helped direct investments of $4 million in three New England food hubs, according to the organization.

Innovations lab

The organization’s fourth program — the innovations lab — develops, tests and implements pilot projects that complement its core programs and work toward a changed food system, said Nischan.

Nischan currently devotes all of his time to Wholesome Wave. “I feel innovative and that our team is constantly turning over new stones,” he said, adding, “We’re really on the verge of potentially doing some game changing, changing the world, type of stuff.”

“I’ve seen people in these programs respond with such joy and vigor and determination and go home and cook healthy meals for their families. It’s giving them the confidence to know their families are going to have the best long-term outcome. I’m really jazzed by Wholesome Wave.”

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