Riding the Wholesome Wave: Fighting Obesity with Farm-Fresh Food
Can you eat fruits and vegetables whenever you want them? Not everyone can. Co-founded in 2007 by James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave is a nonprofit organization that aims to help consumers make healthier food choices by making healthy and locally grown foods more affordable for all.
Farmers Market produce, Photo by Nikki Warner
Through two main partnership programs, the organization works with more than 80 community-based partners at more than 500 farmers markets and dozens of community health care centers and hospitals in 33 states and Washington, DC. In 2010, Wholesome Wave was named one of the five major strategy groups making a difference in the fight against childhood obesity in the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to President Obama. We recently spoke with Chef Michel Nischan, CEO/President of Wholesome Wave to discuss the company’s partnerships and challenges and whether healthy food for everyone can ever become a reality.
Can you describe the kinds of partnerships you have?
We partner with a variety of community based organizations. From small innovative grassroots organizations like Nuestras Raices in Holyoake, Massachusetts, to larger organizations like the International Rescue Committee. We also partner with mayors, city food policy councils and other governmental agencies. We work with farmers, doctors and nutritionists around the country through our Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, which allows children and adults with diet-related illnesses (such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes) and their families to redeem prescriptions for fresh produce each month. Through this program we also collaborate with the individual nutritionists and doctors who meet with patients monthly, discuss healthy eating goals and hand out the prescriptions. We provide training, technical assistance, program materials and data-tracking tools to ensure the program succeeds. Through our National Nutrition Incentive Network, we connect with community-based organizations, nonprofits and farmers markets to increase affordable access to local and healthy fresh fruits and vegetables for underserved consumers who rely on federal benefit programs like SNAP (Food Stamps). Of course, none of these relationships would be possible without the generous support from our financial and intellectual partners which include individual foundations, donors and corporate partners such as FOOD & WINE Magazine and Naked Juice.
How have these partnerships impacted people’s lives, the economy and your goals as a nonprofit in the food industry?
Great change happens when various people and organizations learn how to work together. As a result of our partnerships, tens of thousands of people who struggle to put food on the table are able to feed their families well with fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Through our two partnership programs and in collaboration with nearly a hundred different community-based organizations, we’re working towards building affordable access to healthy food for over 50,000 consumers and their families each year. The SNAP dollars and produce incentives that consumers spend at farmers markets increase farmer revenue, making small and mid-sized farming more financially viable, which injects more money back into local economies. Ultimately, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
What kind of challenges do you face when working on initiatives with your partners, and how do you manage them?
Our only challenge is deciding what initiative to start work with first, they are all so important. But we always seem to figure it out! We’re constantly working towards initiating long-lasting change and impact in the space of affordable access to nutritious food for as many people as we can help. Consequently — and at any point — we’re always willing to evaluate, learn and adapt our initiatives for greater impact. There have been moments where this loop of evaluation and adaptation has been difficult, but in the end, those moments keep us flexible. As a result, we can work collaboratively with a wide variety of people and organizations to develop programs and initiatives that have the greatest possible impact.
Michel Nisan, Photo by Tom Hopkins
What are some of the issues that prevent people from being aware of or having access to nutritious foods?
We think that the largest barrier to both access and knowledge is the lack of affordability for healthier foods. Our programs have proven that when you solve affordability, people will seek out and find access points to purchase fresh local foods. We have found that people want to feed their families well and are often attuned to healthy food choices, but affordability is the most profound boundary to accessing healthy food. According to the USDA, access to healthy food is dependent on income level in the United States. That’s why we focus not only on geographic access, but also on affordability, so that once a consumer makes it to the farmers market or grocery store, they can afford to buy the types of foods that are healthy and help minimize diet-related diseases.
Who is most impacted when it comes to awareness of and access to healthy food choices and why?
Over 50 million Americans struggle with the type of poverty that prevents them from exercising their right to choose healthier food. You can have access to it, but if you can’t afford it, you won’t buy it. Both underserved consumers and small and mid-sized farmers are impacted by the issues of affordable access to healthy food. When underserved consumers can buy nutritious foods, they can feed their families well, improve their health and contribute to the local food economy. When more individuals can afford fresh produce, the small-scale farmer grows his customer base and can reinvest higher wages back into the farm to expand food production, positively impacting the community.
Can nutritious food for all people truly eventually become a reality? If so, how?
Yes, because we say so. All kidding aside, we believe food has the power to fix the world as we know it. We believe it’s not a matter of if but a matter of when all people will have access to healthy, local, affordable fruits and vegetables. We are working to make the “when” happen faster. We believe — and the data shows — that this is completely possible. Right now, non-nutritious foods are artificially cheap: they contain unhealthy, commodity-related ingredients — like corn and soy — which are subsidized by the government. Nutritious food for all will become a reality when healthy foods are affordable and accessible. A lot of work still needs to be done, but cross-sector collaborations are occurring, and we’re beginning to see true change.