Wholesome Wave hopes for ripple effect
By Rita Papazian
Posted: 06/03/2009

Michel Nischan was in an airport recently when a passerby recognized him and said, "Aren't you the guy who started that new movement?"

"New movement?" Nischan asked, as he recalled the encounter in a telephone conversation last Friday. "I've been doing this for 30 years."

Those less familiar with Nischan, chef, restaurateur, author and sustainable food policy advocate may ask, what exactly is he doing?

Right now, Nischan's sustainable food movement is picking up momentum with a three-pronged approach spearheaded by his Wholesome Wave Foundation which he founded in 2007 to make locally grown, healthy sustainable foods available to all communities.

Nischan, who lives in Fairfield with his wife and five children and directs his foundation's programs with a core staff of four from offices at 728 Post Road, in Westport, explained the foundation's sustainable food movement's objectives are twofold: One, to support local farmers by having their produce accessible through local markets. Two, have the farmers' fresh produce not only accessible, but also affordable to the underserved consumers, especially those in rural and urban areas who normally would not be able to buy the produce.

In order to accomplish these objectives, the foundation has launched three initiatives through its "Nourishing Neighborhood" campaign; the Double Value Coupon Program; the Neighborhood Farm Stand Program and the Market Box Nutrition Program. The three programs address the affordability and accessibility of fresh produce for the underserved
Locally, there are many residents in the pockets of the urban areas of Bridgeport and Norwalk who not only cannot afford to buy fresh produce, but also have no available means of travel to buy the produce grown by Connecticut farmers.

"How many dreams aren't being expressed because people are going to bed hungry and malnourished?" Nischan asked.

He is also the owner of The Dressing Room, adjacent to the Westport Playhouse which is described on its Web site as a "homegrown restaurant," reflecting a commitment to local, natural and organic ingredients and regional American heirloom food.

In explaining the initiatives that Nischan and his Wholesome Wave Foundation set down, he brings new meaning to the words, "food chain," for he is creating links between local farmers and their produce with the underserved population. By creating access and affordability of the fresh produce, the underserved consumers are becoming nourished, not just fed. As a result, they are eating healthier and ultimately will reduce health problems which in turn will reduce health costs, Nischan said.

The Double Value Coupon Program doubles the value of food stamps, vouchers and checks distributed through federal Women, Infants and Children Farmers' Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. For example, a consumer can come to a farmers' markets or other direct-to-consumer sales outlets and redeem the stamps, vouchers or checks for double their value in coins which can be used to purchase fresh produce. The farmers then redeem the coins for cash at the end of the day from the foundation.

The Double Value Coupon Program is made possible through seed funding from the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation, Newman's Own Foundation, Food & Wine magazine's Grow for Good Campaign, anonymous major donors, and farmers' markets in Connecticut and other states who participate in the program.

In a prepared statement, Gus Schumacher, Wholesome Wave Foundation Chairman and former Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted the program's support to farmers and food assistance recipients. He said the program encourages the federal government, along with local and state government to partner in supporting the initiative.

The Neighborhood Farm Stand Program, the second initiative in the Neighborhood Nourishing campaign will bring farm stands deep within neighborhoods of underserved Bridgeport. Nischan said in mid-June Wholesome Wave will stock a truck of fresh produce and drive it to Marina Village every Saturday during the summer in order to give the residents access to local farm-grown produce. Additionally, the Foundation is currently planning a permanent farmers' market at Bridgeport's Department of Health and Social Services.

The third initiative is the Market Box Nutrition Program, launched at the Norwalk Community Health Center, in which Wholesome Wave purchases surplus fruits and vegetables from the Westport farmers' market, packs the produce into half-bushel boxes, then delivers the boxes at an affordable and subsidized cost to families that have little access to fresh food. Each box, a $20 to $25 value, may be purchased for $6 in food stamps or Women, Infants and Children Farmers Market Nutrition vouchers. The program benefits families that want to purchase fresh, locally grown produce but do not have access to transportation or the economic means to shop at farmers markets.

Wholesome Wave is partnering with organizations to assist them in replicating the initiatives in other states including, Michigan, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Georgia, California. Vermont, Massachusetts and Virginia where the Foundation is providing $10,000 to the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon to launch the Double Voucher Coupon Program.

"We're trying to be as broad as we can," Nischan said. He is the author of two best-selling cookbooks, Taste Pure and Simple and Homegrown Pure and Simple. He is recipient of the 2008 James Beard Foundation award for his work on the PBS series, Victory Garden.

Boasting the success of the program when it was piloted last year, Nischan said every dollar spent creates $1.73 worth of economic activity, especially in the local neighborhoods, towns and cities where the produce is purchased. The programs keep federal and foundation dollars in the local community.