Wholesome Wave Foundation
To try a recipe for wild mushroom, bacon, and arugula fritatta from Michel's upcoming cookbook, Sustainably Delicious, click here.
You could open the garage door of our prefab house in Des Plaines, Illinois, during the early '60s and see neat stacks of meticulously marked cases of Ball Mason jars labeled banana peppers, tomatoes, green beans, apples, pickled peaches, beets, and so on. The maker was my mom, a displaced farmer from Scott County, Missouri, who torch-sang her way north when it became apparent that life on a south-central Midwest farm was no longer an option for a living. The "terroir" was our backyard garden at 9301 Noel Street, and what was left of a few farm stands on Golf Road. The "consumers" were our family of six—Mom, Dad, and us four kids.
The context that created the garden and all those boxes of wonderful food was significant: our family had very limited income and was managed by parents who had lived through the Great Depression. That both parents had to work full-time to make ends barely meet would explain their belief that the "next Depression" was imminent.
Times got better—then, in the end, not so good, as my dad finished his life opening, sweeping, and closing a small-town laundromat to keep the mortgage paid. A very good man who struggled until the very end. But for all the struggles endured, the food was always good—and my mom always fed the neighborhood kids, no matter how many. My dad, concerned, would ask mom why she fed so many when we had so little. Mom would answer, "They're kids and they're hungry." I now understand the pressures my parents felt and deeply appreciate what they were able to provide while protecting us from their significant challenges.
I grew up knowing not only what a ripe tomato was but also what kind, when it was ripe-and-ready, or if it was best for canning or pickling. We were relatively poor, but never hungry. What I did not realize until I grew older and became a chef was just how lucky we kids were to grow up knowing real food.
After decades as a chef and sustainability advocate, I consider with awe how my mom made things work in an environment increasingly hostile to food independence. I spent years grappling with the guilt of being able to provide locally and regionally grown food only to folks who can afford fine living. I've had serious difficulties reconciling that good food, once doable for low-income families, was now only available to affluent communities or the lucky few who have land and gumption to grow their own.
In short, our food system has gone horribly wrong. While I don't believe this happened by intent, the results are dire for most Americans. In considering a solution, we looked to America's most forgotten neighborhoods—where heroes are not assumed to exist. Surprisingly, wholesome food is in demand in these areas popularly referred to as "food deserts." These communities, because of poverty and culture, have a sense of frugality that is unmatched—a powerful tool for change. Much to the surprise and chagrin of occasional detractors, folks in these communities actually want to feed their families wholesome food. Unfortunately, in the scant few cases where it is available, it is not affordable.
Food stamps, now known as SNAP benefits, present another tool that is often overlooked by many outside the highly processed food world. Seventy-eight billion dollars in annual SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits are spread so thinly in underserved communities that the average SNAP benefit per person is $3 per day. Small wonder why SNAP recipients buy Cup Noodles, minute rice, and Hamburger Helper (without the hamburger). They simply cannot afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, even if these were readily available in their communities.
Large format grocery stores have fled these communities in favor of suburban locations where more affluent consumers can support their highly profitable produce sections. One dollar can buy 1,200 calories of chips or 870 calories of soda—but only 170 calories of fresh fruit. In a neighborhood where you buy your food from a liquor store or gas station, it's easy to understand why it's almost impossible for millions of Americans to find, let alone afford, fresh produce.
My foundation, Wholesome Wave, began a small program dedicated to proving that benefits designed specifically to subsidize locally grown fruits and vegetables could break the affordability barrier. The program has been hugely successful in bringing support to farmers markets for these local produce incentives in underserved communities. SNAP redemption rates more than tripled at most markets that accepted the benefits with no additional incentive the previous season. At markets that ran out of incentive funds, redemption rates dipped, but remained remarkably high: once families shopped at the markets, they found produce they could afford. A recent CDC study found that while farmers' market produce is more expensive than grocery store produce by the piece, it is cheaper by the pound.
Wholesome Wave's programs, which are now in 12 states and nearly 100 markets, should have a home in the next Farm Bill, with SNAP benefits including a portion of incentives. Wholesome Wave's incentive programs give families in underserved communities purchasing power that could allow them to significantly change the food landscape. Sound like a pipe dream? Consider this: if just five percent of the $78 billion in SNAP benefits were released in the form of local fruit and vegetable incentives, the resulting $3.9 billion in incentives would cause $7.8 billion in produce purchasing power.
This would clearly be of significant benefit to American fruit and vegetable growers, who currently receive less than one half of one percent of agricultural subsidies. These farmers have unsuccessfully tried for decades to get 10 percent of the $10 billion in annual subsidies that go to cotton, corn, soy, wheat, and rice farmers, claiming that fruit and vegetable prices would come down for all Americans. Would you rather have 10 percent of 10 or 5 percent of 78?
With many sustainable food advocates still relying on affluent communities, upscale restaurants (like mine), and upscale grocery chains to support a more sustainable food future, we're betting on our underserved communities to be the heroes of a changed food system.
To find out more about the Wholesome Wave Foundation, visit wholesomewave.org. Michel will also be speaking in New York and elsewhere in the next several weeks. Details are available at michelnischan.com.