Four Questions with Michel Nischan

Whet your appetite for Thursday's webinar by reading our Q&A with Michel Nischan, longtime chef activist.

In our upcoming webinar Filling the low-income plate: How Wholesome Wave is shaking up preventative health and the future of food security, Wholesome Wave founder and CEO Michel Nischan will join us to discuss his organization's innovative approach to food security and healthy food affordability in the US. Don't forget to register here to join the live online event happening Thursday, September 29 at 12-1pm Eastern

1. Why do we need to subsidize healthy food for low-income people?  

For people struggling with low incomes, unhealthy food is the only choice they can afford because it is heavily unsubsidized. Subsidizing fruits and vegetables levels the price playing field and so creaties the condition to meaningfully shift a low-income person’s decision toward a healthier food choice.  

The subsidies that favor unhealthy food production came into being after WWII as a way of accomplishing two important things: 1) Food security from a national security perspective and; 2) Non-perishable food that was light and easy to transport. Both of these approaches to national security, seasoned with the powerful notion of ending world hunger, presented a compelling argument to use public dollars to significantly shift our agriculture and food production models. The problem today is that a small number of companies are making a lot of money perpetuating these systems. That’s going to take time to change.

2.   You’ve recently received some big investments from a few quarters. How will this expand and change your work?  

As we strive to scale, we need to engage larger-scale supporters from government and private foundations or corporations, at a financial and supply chain perspective. This allows us to uncover, experiment, and invest in innovations that will allow us to go from reaching hundreds of thousands of low-income consumers, to reaching millions.

To put it into perspective — a lot of people have congratulated us on the success of getting fruit and vegetable incentives into the Farm Bill. The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Funding is $100M, and requires an equal private-sector match. So all-in, the field is capable of reaching hundreds of thousands of people, rather than many millions. We’re not going to see meaningful impact on public health, and its costs, until we’re reaching at least 10 million Americans. With 45 million Americans relying on SNAP and an additional 21 million who are food insecure, we’ve got a lot of work to do. These scaled relationships will help us get closer.

3. In order to get at the root causes of poverty and food insecurity, what kind of policy changes are you pushing for from government?

We are looking at levers that will greatly increase the ability of low-income consumers to afford to make healthier food choices. We’re pushing to strengthen the incentives approach as well as basic SNAP benefits in the Farm Bill. But we have an eye on the Affordable Care Act and Medicare and Medicaid policy as well. The top diet-related diseases just in direct costs are over $216 billion a year. Snap is $70-80 billion a year. So the the cost to treat diet-related disease is almost three times the SNAP budget.

The healthy foods capable of preventing or mitigating these diseases cost far less than drugs or medical treatments, like dialysis, amputations, or organ transplants. To invest in food in the front end, and reduce costs in back end, constitutes a program that can pay for itself.

However, this doesn’t address the root cause of poverty. Poverty is the lack of money. In the US, that has come to mean under-employment and under-payment for those who are working full-time jobs. We won’t solve poverty until we see incomes rise for jobs that used to actually pay people enough to avoid poverty. The vast majority of people in the workforce are making and cleaning things. Those jobs used to pay enough so people could own a home and have one car. Now those jobs won’t even put food on the table.

4. As a chef, what do you recommend to working on the front lines get people excited about cooking and healthy eating?

As a chef, obviously I’d like everybody to be excited about healthy eating and cooking in general. If you have a basic knowledge of culinary techniques and seasoning — there isn’t a whole food out there, whether a fish, animal or plant, that can’t be made delicious. The true barrier is being able to afford the healthy ingredients that basic culinary techniques will make delicious.

When I started as a chef, I thought it was all about education and teaching people. I was wrong. For people struggling with poverty, the barrier to eating healthfully is not knowledge or education. Affordability is the barrier. You can pour money into teaching healthy cooking — but if people can’t afford fruits and vegetables, they’re not going to buy, cook, or eat them. It’s that simple. I believe in power of knowledge, but it’s meaningless if the person you’re teaching can’t afford it.

To hear more from Michel Nischan about fruit and vegetable prescriptions, farmer's markets, and upstream health, we welcome you to join our webinar. Learn more and register here.