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Michel Nischan: The Food-Stamp Reformer

Founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave, chef/partner of Dressing Room, Westport, CT
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Michel Nischan

In addition to founding nonprofit Wholesome Wave, Michel Nischan has enjoyed a flourishing culinary career. A son of displaced farmers, Nischan grew up with an ingrained appreciation for sustainable agriculture. An advocate long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, Nischan honed his skills in restaurants throughout the Midwest before becoming chef and co-owner of the highly praised Miche Mache in Connecticut and then Heartbeat in New York City. He opened Dressing Room in 2006 with the late Paul Newman, whose foundation supported the launch of Wholesome Wave.

Chef Michel Nischan has written an award-winning cookbook, cooked on television, opened a restaurant (Dressing Room) with the late Paul Newman and created the first organic restaurant in India. But ask him what he’s most proud of and he’ll tell you: “Bringing affordable fruits and vegetables to underserved communities.”

Nischan is the founder of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit program that provides cash incentives to recipients of food stamps to make healthier food choices for their families. The premise is simple: Wholesome Wave doubles the value of food stamps when used at participating farmers markets.

“If you want to buy Twinkies with your food stamps, knock yourself out,” Nischan says. “But if you want this really great locally grown tomato, you get to double your money.”

The program has been so successful it has taken root in 200 farmers markets in 20 states. In some cases, the existence of these doubled-value food stamps has drawn farmers markets to poor neighborhoods.

Nischan got the food-activism bug when his son, Chris, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. If the son of a New York City chef preaching “pure” food was sick, what did that mean for children of lesser privilege and access to fresh food?

Though he worked at Heartbeat, a trendy Midtown Manhattan dining room known for its “lighter, healthier” approach to haute cuisine, he felt frustrated. “I was just feeding 200 rich people healthy food every night but not getting to the heart of the problem.”

Nischan doesn’t believe this war will be waged in high-end dining establishments. “Even if all the white-tablecloth restaurants in the country bought local, it wouldn’t make a blip,” he says. “Unless we get Middle America to change their purchasing and eating habits, a sustainable food system will never be possible.”

While Nischan admires the work of those seeking school-lunch reform, he questions whether cash-strapped schools can make it happen. “Wholesome Wave is about changing the food system too, but we’re financing it through an existing pool of money—the budget for food stamps,” he says.

To Nischan, chefs are the obvious choice to champion the cause of healthy eating. “They move a lot of money through a variety of intersecting channels,” Nischan says. “They are the natural place where conscience meets execution.” —Pascale Le Draoulec

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Pascale Le Draoulec is a James Beard Award–winning author who has written about food and restaurants for more than 15 years.

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