Activist chef Michel Nischan’s visionary crusade
The name Michel Nischan is familiar to many in Connecticut. The chef and restaurateur co-founded The Dressing Room restaurant in Westport with Paul Newman in 2006—a wildly popular spot where Nischan also played in a band aptly called “House Dressing.”
As one of the first farm-to-table eateries in the area, the restaurant was considered revolutionary. Low key and laid back, it offered comfort food items that were local, sustainable and organic. Nischan closed the restaurant in 2014, but he did so for noble reasons: to focus on Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit he founded that provides healthy food choices to underserved consumers by increasing affordable access to fresh, local, and healthy items.
Wholesome Wave wants to provide everyone, regardless of income or circumstances, with the opportunity to put fresh fruits and vegetables on the table for their families. The group sees food as a powerful, binding, changing force impacting everything from the environment to social, economic, and human health. Nischan and his team firmly believe that if they can “fix” the basic issue of food for those in need, many issues (not all food-related) will benefit, too.
Chicago born and raised, Nischan’s life and career have never been a straight line. “I wanted to be a musician but I wasn’t doing well as one,” he says. “My parents had fallen on very hard times and I needed to move out of my house after my senior year. My mother urged me to get a job at a restaurant because I could cook and butcher. I had spent my summers on my grandfather’s farm in Missouri. There I learned how to harvest all sorts of vegetables, collect eggs, kill and pluck chickens, kill and butcher animals. We helped my grandfather so that he didn’t have to hire the help he could no longer afford.”
At the end of the summer, the entire Nischan family would take their vacation together to pickle, salt and can a season’s worth of goods, then pack it up and take it all back home.
For Michel, this all translated into restaurant work, which became a career. He soon found himself working at a restaurant, learning the business. Within three years he became a chef in Wisconsin. And he began making breakthrough observations.
“I noticed all the terrible food coming into the kitchen,” he says. “These chefs just didn’t know good food.” He found he had a knack for teaching people about freshness and quality.
In 1981, when he became a chef in Milwaukee, he started knocking on the doors of farmers asking for fresh produce—staples like tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. “I decided that I would devote my career to bringing fresh food back,” Nischan says. “I could not imagine life as a chef without fresh produce, and never having access to the foods that I was raised on.”
With that realization came another that was far less welcome. “A little more than halfway through that journey, about 20 years ago, my oldest son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The news devastated us,” Nischan says. In fact, both of his sons have the disease.
After consulting with doctors and healthcare professionals, Nischan learned that the disease could be controlled with nutrition. As it happened, he was then opening Heartbeat in the first W Hotel in New York City. Sustainable and organic was far from mainstream at the time, even in Manhattan. But the experience advanced his knowledge of treating Type 2 diabetes with nutrition. Nischan discovered the disease is preventable and reversible with a proper diet.
Almost subliminally, Nischan was doing the math about the consanguinity of health and food.
“That’s when I hit a wall,” he says. In the restaurant business, he could source local food and charge for it. “I felt good about myself, but realized there were those who could never dream of being able to order healthy, sustainable food. How could I stand by and allow that to happen?”
The seeds for Wholesome Wave were planted at that moment. It was a simple epiphany: Everyone should be able to put a ripe peach or fresh tomato on their table. Everyone.
Events began to progress as if some kind of predestination was at work. He was soon introduced to August “Gus” Schumacher Jr., Wholesome Wave’s founding board chair. Schumacher was then Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the USDA under President Clinton. Schumacher handled all agricultural trade relations and worked with people in economically depressed areas. This was another piece of the puzzle.
“I thought lack of proper diet was due to lack of education, about learning how to make better choices. But I was wrong,” Nischan says. “A woman pulled me aside once and said ‘You can talk to me all you want about all this stuff, but I can’t afford to buy it. Unless you give me the money, I can’t buy this stuff. And I’m not taking your money either.’”
That was the second epiphany. Many people can’t afford the healthiest items in grocery store aisles. So, they end up doubling down on boxes of Minute Rice and Cream of Mushroom soup, over relying on complex carbohydrates that are quickly converted into fat. It became clear to Nischan just how obesity can exist side-by-side with malnutrition and hunger in this country.
“If the issue is affordability,” he wondered, “how do we create affordability?”
The two men decided to raise some private money so that the value of the food stamps could be doubled if it were spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. “We knew this was what we should be doing at Wholesome Wave. If we could shift public policy dollars, then those struggling with poverty could have access to healthy fruits and vegetables.”
With Nischan running The Dressing Room restaurant, and Schumacher a consultant to foundations including Ford, Kellogg, and Kresge, the duo was in a perfect position to do some good. They decided to champion a Double Value Coupon Program at 12 markets in three states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California.
Word spread fast within the nonprofit community. Donors fell in love with the idea and private funds flowed in. Wholesome Wave officially launched in 2008 with a presence in three states. By 2010 there were 20 participating states; today 34 states are involved.
Last year, the USDA’s Farm Bill doubled their funding for food stamps, but Wholesome Wave still needs matching funds from the private sector. “If you want a grant for $500,000, you also need to raise that much privately. There’s a lot of work to do,” Nischan says. If all goes well over the next five years, he hopes there will be enough public support to carry the entire effort.
Wholesome Wave now has 80 partners representing 250 nonprofit organizations that distribute benefits in 33 states, working with more than 500 farmer’s markets. These groups also collaborate with the poor to help them understand earned income tax credits, avoid predatory check cashing stores, and locate affordable housing. They let people know that they can qualify for food stamps, and that food stamp value is doubled when spent on fresh produce.
Getting that word out is one thing; getting the system to work is another. Nischan notes that his attempt to get Wholesome Wave going in Westport Farmers’ Market failed. “We couldn’t get the poor to come to Westport,” he says. That fact inspired a big move to Bridgeport.
They then needed to figure out how to create a farm stand in that city, and where to put it. The parking lot of the Bridgeport Health Department made sense. Even so, Nischan was terribly nervous. He worried whether anyone would even show up.
But show up they did. A story from that time has stuck with Nischan: “There was an elderly African-American man there. He was easily in his 70s with three young children by his side. They were the children of his deceased much younger sister, and he was raising them.” The man picked up some kohlrabi and asked what it was. Nischan explained that it’s like a turnip, very nutritious, and can be prepared many ways. The man reasoned that with Wholesome Wave’s dollar-doubling food stamp deal, he could buy twice as much. He took 10 pounds.
“This, to me, was amazing,” Nischan says. “It showed me that you can teach people what to do with broccoli all day long, but if they have $2 to spend and broccoli costs $2, plus the cost of transportation, they’re not going to buy the broccoli. They are going to buy ramen.” In other words, education doesn’t mean a thing if people can’t access and afford healthy food.
These are happy times for Wholesome Wave. During the holidays, people want to feel that they’ve put a nourishing feast on their tables. With this comes a sense of self-esteem. Also, farmers’ markets typically struggle during this time of the year. But the Wholesome Wave customers are there, regardless of the temperature. With knowledge of better alternatives (and the economic help to afford it), these folks are hungry for healthy options.
What Nischan never expected was that farmers also benefit from the arrangement by lengthening their season, which keeps them in better economic health. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and not just some kind of one-sided handout.
Wholesome Wave goes beyond offering people an opportunity to have fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re making people healthier. It’s a wave to be sure, carrying those in need to a better place with the thundering energy of collaboration, vision, and action.