Michel Nischan of ‘Wholesome Wave’: “Collaboration sounds like a warm and fuzzy word, but it’s not”

Collaboration sounds like a warm and fuzzy word, but it’s not. Meaningful collaboration — the kind that actually leads to real reform or change — can only be accomplished when you work with organizations that might not be aligned with your organizational or personal values. This is especially true when we look at some of society’s most vexing problems. […]

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Collaboration sounds like a warm and fuzzy word, but it’s not. Meaningful collaboration — the kind that actually leads to real reform or change — can only be accomplished when you work with organizations that might not be aligned with your organizational or personal values. This is especially true when we look at some of society’s most vexing problems. So many organizations avoid working with others unless the “others” are fully aligned with their own organizations’ values — an impossible prerequisite.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michel Nischan.

Michel Nischan is a four-time James Beard Award winning chef with over 35 years of leadership advocating for a more healthful, sustainable food system and is a pioneer and scaler of the produce prescription model. He is the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Wholesome Wave, Co-Founder of the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Action Network, as well as Founder and Partner with the late actor Paul Newman of the former Dressing Room Restaurant. Nischan, whose parents were farmers, began his career at 19, cooking breakfast at a truck stop. He quickly realized that the ingredients coming in the back door fell far short of the farm-fresh harvests he’d grown up on, and began a life-long career championing the farm-to-table concept, decades before it had a name. He has participated in numerous keynotes and panel presentations on the intersections of food and health, agriculture and health, as well as enterprise and health, such as the plenary panel at the 2018 Farm Foundation Roundtable on the Science and Controversy of Healthy food: The Role of Produce Prescriptions in Health and Agriculture, and the opening panel for Tufts University Food Innovation Summit: Financial Rewards for Tackling Obesity and Diabetes. He continues to advocate for fresh produce accessibility and has presented Food as Medicine and Produce Prescriptions at TEDx Manhattan, TEDMED, and TEDx Mid Atlantic with the knowledge he has acquired from working so passionately in the space.

He’s also the author of three cookbooks on sustainable food systems and social equity through food. A lifetime Ashoka fellow, he serves as a director on the board of the Jacques Pepin Foundation; and on the advisory boards of Chef’s Collaborative, Modern Farmer, Good Food Media Network, and The Culinary Institute of America. The James Beard Foundation honored Nischan as the 2015 Humanitarian of The Year, and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Post University with the graduating Class of 2019. Michel and his late co-founder Gus Schumacher were published in the 2001 Maine Policy Review with Gus Schumacher: Healthy Food Access and Affordability: “We Can Pay the Farmer or We Can Pay the Hospital”


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

By 1994, I was 14 years into my career path as a rising-star chef and leader in the local sustainable food movement. My son Chris was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 5. When we learned that what we would do with Chris’s food strategy would have more to do with ensuring a longer and better-quality life-expectancy for him, we immediately changed our food strategy at home. I soon had to do the same in my restaurants because I could not bear feeding my customers food that I would not feed my own family. So I opened a restaurant of well-being called Heartbeat Restaurant in the first W hotel that opened in 1997. That led to my opening a similar restaurant in India in partnership with Taj luxury hotels called Pure. Heartbeat received excellent reviews from publications like The New York Times and New York Observer, and a zero-star review from the New York Post, who accused us of being the “food police.” Both restaurants generated a lot of attention as well as controversy, so we were busy and in demand.

My first cookbook based on the cuisine of Heartbeat gained me an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2003, and won a James Beard Award, garnering significant attention about my approach. A highly-reviewed chef that cooked healthy food was a stark anomaly in the late 90s, so I was invited to participate in several think tanks hosted by the Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and others. It was in these forums that I learned about concepts like the social determinants of health, and the diet related disease epidemic. I also learned about the family of four on Food Stamps who, after running out of the benefit mid-month, would be left with ~2.00 dollars to spend on all four people for dinner. There is no viable business model to address a family that has .50 dollars to spend for each family member on their meal. This is the energy that led to the founding of Wholesome Wave.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

So many of my dearest friends who are significant thought leaders in the good food movement were pleased and excited when I founded Wholesome Wave with my co-founder, the late Gus Schumacher, a former high-level USDA official. One dear friend, Joan Gussow, who is a revered leader of the Environmental Nutrition movement said to me: “Michel, I absolutely love your Wholesome Wave concept and I know you will absolutely have a positive impact on so many people, but I know you, and I just don’t want you to be heartbroken when you learn that you’ll never be able to change US food policy.” When we succeeded with the 100M dollars FINI pilot in the US Farm bill, and then it became permanently legislated in the 2018 farm bill and named after Gus — the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GuSNIP), I remembered our conversation and thought ‘Wow! We did it!’

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember when we opened our first farmers market in the parking lot of the Bridgeport Health Department. We were a very small organization with only three employees including myself. We had done extensive outreach in partnership with the health department because they were the location where people could pick up their WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons. We had raised private money from Newman’s Own Foundation and the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation to double this benefit, as well as give recipients a place where they could redeem them.

We coordinated to set the market up on the day that the WIC FMNP benefits were distributed. Up to this point, I had assumed there would be long lines of people waiting to get into the market to spend their benefits, but nobody came. I had this incredibly ominous feeling that I had fallen victim to the notion that “if you build it, they will come,” but nobody came!

I then learned that I had gotten the day wrong and had set the market up one day early.

The lesson I learned: Calendars are important.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We were aware of pilot nutrition incentive programs that had popped up in small nodes, in individual communities, to very limited success. These programs struggled because of lack of interest in funding — the notion of a donor providing money to be spent on a product was not gaining traction. These pilots also lacked a meaningful marketing approach. Some were confusing. For instance, there was one program where if you spent 5.00 dollars in food benefits at a farmer’s market, you would get 2.00 dollars-worth of “fruit and vegetable bucks.” People didn’t know if you got “2-for-5” only once, or if it applied for every 5.00 dollars you spend — it was confusing. In many cases, low income consumer who relied on benefits would get a 5 dollars, 10 dollars or 15 dollars coupon when they visited the market and prove they qualified because they relied on federal benefits.

Our idea was to use a “two-for-one” concept, but to tie it directly to the actual spend of the federal benefit to trigger the deal. If you spend 4% on fruits and vegetables, you get a couple worth 5 dollars that can be spent on more fruits and vegetables, spend 10 dollars, get 10 dollars, etc. At the time, in 2007, it was illegal to show marketing preference to SNAP (food stamp) recipients, a regulation intending to prevent junk food companies from performing predatory marketing, but never anticipated a two-for-one fruit and vegetable program.

Gus used his connections and experience as a former high-ranking official to get the USDA to issue wavers, then blanket waivers, and today, no waivers are necessary.

Once we proved the concept, we created a National Nutrition Incentive Network providing training, technical assistance and the seed funding to community-based organizations addressing food and nutrition and security in both urban and rural communities struggling with poverty and low income.

Basically, we created a movement, and that movement exists today. The Gus Schumacher nutrition incentive program, funded at 250 million dollars over five years, is a permanent part of the federal farm bill. Well over 1000 community-based organizations, including health departments, clinics, farmers markets and grocery retailers, participate in programs that allow low-income shoppers to choose the fruits and vegetables they need to stay healthy.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The one individual and stories that always comes to my mind is what I refer to as “the tale of two Nelsons.” At that same farmers market in the parking lot of the Bridgeport Health Department, an African-American senior came with three young children and his doubling coupons. He stopped by a box of kohlrabi, picked one up and started waving it over his head saying, “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me!” It was actually disruptive as he was pretty loud, so our farmer who ran the market, the late Nelson Ciccarelli from Connecticut, and I ran over to the man waving the vegetable over his head. Concerned, we asked how we could help him. He introduced himself as Nelson, and then pointed at the sign that showed the kohlrabi was a dollar a pound and asked, “I need to know what to do with this, because I can afford a lot of it. These kids need to eat more vegetables, and I can get a lot of this.” Overjoyed, Nelson and I both shared a variety of methods and ways to deal with kohlrabi, “the best news about the vegetable is that it’s fully edible raw, tastes great cooked and enjoys a long shelf life.” The second Nelson said, “I’ll take ten pounds!”

This was thirteen years ago, so I have no idea where Nelson is today, but he was a regular at the market, where we eventually learned he was the much older brother of his deceased sister, and was now taking care of her children.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Absolutely. Support programs like these to see they are fully funded. The GuSNIP funding requires a 1 to 1 local, municipal or state match, so if you want to access 100,000 dollars in GuSNIP funds for your community, you need to raise 100,000 dollars in matching funds or allowable in-kind services, like marketing outreach, currency management, etc.

City and county budgets throughout America should be writing match dollars for this valuable program into their budgets. Companies and corporations should be financially supporting match, as well as paying for sports uniforms and other community-based initiatives. They would receive a tax write-off, and generate significant good will.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Know what you don’t know, then enlist those who do. Engage them in a meaningful way so they have a sense of ownership over the mission or vision, then be in service to their partnership while staying out of their way.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

That the non-profit world is as, or more, competitive than the for-profit world. So many organizations in any specific field are all fighting over the same funding sources for what often amounts to table scraps when compared to the size of problem they are being charged to solve. Causing people who are passionate about solving society’s most vexing problems to do so in a severely under-resourced environment causes competitiveness, idea hoarding and territorial defensiveness.

Collaboration sounds like a warm and fuzzy word, but it’s not. Meaningful collaboration — the kind that actually leads to real reform or change — can only be accomplished when you work with organizations that might not be aligned with your organizational or personal values. This is especially true when we look at some of society’s most vexing problems. So many organizations avoid working with others unless the “others” are fully aligned with their own organizations’ values — an impossible prerequisite.

For example, the oil industry is viciously competitive. But when oil goes below 100 dollars a barrel, leaders from the industry don’t hesitate to get behind closed doors to figure out how to use their collective influence to encourage policies and tactics that help the overall industry remain profitable.

Collaboration is very difficult. It means working with people you would rather not want to work with, and having very difficult conversations, as well as making very difficult compromises, for the overall good of field advancement. It is time consuming, it is ego bruising, but it is absolutely necessary to achieve affective reform or change.

Running a non-profit is like being stuck in “Series-A Raise Groundhog Day.” I, along with some of our top talent, spend the majority of our time asking people for money rather than putting our time, talent and intellect into innovation, iteration, continuous improvement, etc. Who know what innovations we might have missed along the way if one of us would have won the lottery?

The concept of refusing incremental change in favor of wholesale systems change is unrealistic and dangerous — though failing to meaningfully reform or change current systems is equally unrealistic and dangerous. The current food system is feeding billions of people every day who have no idea how to grow, prepare or forage for their food. Blowing it up and shifting a completely local food supply would result in hunger, malnutrition and starvation at much higher rates than we see today. I see reform, thoughtfully designed, as what creates the proof-of-concept pathway that can lead to a system change. Amazon didn’t pop-up overnight. I see it as a design-intent focused on reforming how current systems and infrastructures were managed, tested eight ways to Sunday, and ultimately leading to very disruptive systems changes.

The food system is not broken. It is working exactly as it was designed to — deliver as many calories to as many people as inexpensively as possible. The challenge is that it was designed long before we understood the catastrophic impacts of uber-processed carbohydrates, chemical agriculture inputs and the mass transportation that delivers them, on human, population, environmental, and societal health.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are actually invested in the Food as Medicine movement. We created the concept of fully-funded produce prescriptions — the ability of a doctor or nurse practitioner to see a patient either with a diet related disease, or headed towards a diet related disease, to provide that patient with a prescription that can be redeemed for the fruits and vegetables they need to either better manage the disease, or avoid it altogether. At the same time we began this work, there were other innovative organizations who created the medically tailored meals concept. Each of these approaches to helping people struggling with poverty, and the food and nutrition insecurity that come along with the poverty, have grown into movements. We believe in the concept of having large public services like Medicaid and Medicare eventually reimburse these types of programs. Doing so can save our country upwards of 1.4 trillion dollars a year that we currently spend on the treatment and lost productivity caused by preventable diseases.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Know what you don’t know, and enlist those who do. The explanation is above.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Jeff Bezos. He’s brilliant, capable, multi-faceted in his thinking and approaches, and he’s going to have more time on his hands. The most vexing barriers to the success of our work include equitable access to technology, payment system reform that can not only protect donor or federal dollars by restricting their use to healthier food choices (key to the success of incentivizing food purchasing and eating behavior), easy and multi-lingual communications tech for nutrition education, and — in a pandemic environment — the ability for low-income shoppers to order food online for home delivery.

SNAP benefits have never kept pace with the cost of living, so just accepting EBT online is not good enough — can’t check the box. When you can’t afford a vegetable because a macaroni meal is cheap and more filling, broccoli is off the table. Technology could be effectively used to aggregate, educate, and more importantly, elevate a largely undervalued consumer market sector that spends ~70B dollars a year on food in federal benefits along with a similar amount of their own money. Right now, the tech giants figured out how to do exactly what I just described, largely for those who can afford to use tech, or who have access to it. They all made wild fortunes doing it. Time to pay it forward. He has the time, the talent, the intellect and the assets. If anyone could help make this work, it might be him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram and Twitter

@wholesomewave

@michelnischan

@wholesomecrave

Web

Wholesomewave.org

Chefnischan.com

Wholesomecrave.com

Facebook

@wholesomewave

@michelnischanofficial

@wholesomecrave

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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