Michel Nischan: James Beard Humanitarian of the Year

As we go to print on this article, chef, CEO and humanitarian Michel Nischan had just been in Chicago receiving another James Beard Award, as Humanitarian of the Year. This honor has been bestowed on few, including Art Smith, Emeril Lagasse and the late Charlie Trotter. The award signifies Michel’s commitment to making a difference in how and where we buy food, food education, and Wholesome Wave programs that offer affordable access to all consumers, especially the food insecure.  Today's article is shared on both MIAbites and CTbites, as Michel, who has lived in Connecticut for many years, and his work with Wholesome Wave highlights an important message that should be shared and acted upon in every state, every city and every town across the United States. 

As a longtime Westport CT resident, I have fond memories of The Dressing Room next to the Westport Country Playhouse. The buzz surrounding the restaurant when it opened in 2006 was driven by the friendship and collaboration between the co-owners, Paul Newman and chef Michel Nischan and their shared beliefs about food. Together they contributed to Connecticut’s nascent farm-to-table movement, not only sourcing from local farms and purveyors, but also listing their products as part of the menu. Paul could be found there many evenings with his wife Joanne, and family and “sightings” were always a treat to patrons. When Paul passed away a couple years later, Michel continued to run the restaurant in the same spirit of local food celebration, hiring top chefs in the kitchen and the House Dressing band (with Paul’s daughter, Melissa) performing most weekends.

The restaurant remained open and loved by a loyal clientele until January 2014 when it closed. 

Michel’s work in the restaurant and with local farms and food eventually led to a desire to “change the world through food.”  He founded the nonprofit Wholesome Wave in 2007, with Gus Schumacher, former Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food & Foreign Services, as Founding Board Chair, and the late Michael Batterberry, Founder of Food Arts Magazine, as Founding Board Member.  

Wholesome Wave: A National Food Impact  

Q: Who does Wholesome Wave help? Where does it impact lay?  
A: 50 million americans rely on food stamps, they are the food insecure, and the floodgates are ready to open. They are focused on anything that can improve their children having a better long term outcome. - Michel Nischan 

Since its founding in 2007 and in collaboration with more than 80 community based partners, Wholesome Wave’s programs have expanded to 33 states and DC and are implemented at more than 500 farmers markets, dozens of community health care centers, hospitals and food hubs throughout the country. As CEO of Wholesome Wave, the two time James Beard award-winning Michel Nischan piloted the Double Value Coupon Program at 12 markets in three states  doubling the value of food stamps when fresh fruits and vegetables are purchased. Since then, the organization has launched numerous initiatives, including the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Healthy Food Commerce Investments and is recognized as a compelling model for expanding regional food access.

Is Farm-to-Table an Elitist Phrase?

Farm-to-table dining is a phrase thrown around loosely these days as “enlightened eaters” pick a restaurant or a menu item inspired by local farm ingredients such as its heirloom tomatoes, grass-fed beef, foraged mushrooms and edible flowers.  When we shop for our meals at home, many of us are able to look for the local corn, honey, kale and fruit, without needing to consider the cost, and the fact that these items often cost more than the frozen or canned versions. While some of us may be able to have our food choices driven by quality and not just cost, not all of us not so lucky.

For those on limited incomes and budgets, and in some cases supplemented by WIC or SNAP programs, that dollar needs to stretch further than a fresh bunch of local broccoli. Through Wholesome Waves Double Coupon initiative, those food stamps are worth double when used to purchase fresh produce at supermarkets and participating farmers markets. Michel believes passionately that “every citizen in the US should have affordable access to the same food.”

In both Connecticut and Miami, these programs are not as well supported or funded and it is our hope that this article might shed some focus on Wholesome Wave's mission.

Miami’s Chef Michael Schwartz, himself a James Beard Award winner, has known Michel for many years

They first met when Lee Schrager of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival invited them to come together and host the first farm-to-table Dinner at SOBEWFF.

They remain friends to this day and Michael has been Miami’s champion for sustainable and local farming and healthy eating thru his Genuine Hospitality Group and as Honorary Chair of Slow Food Miami. When I told Michael I was meeting Michel and asked for his thoughts, he responded:

"The man is a saint. He truly has enough passion inside him to change the world. And he probably doesn't even realize this, but the byproduct of all that positive energy is as important, maybe even more important, than the mission itself. Inspiration for the rest of us. If we had more people like Michel in the world, it would be a better place".

Congratulations to Michel and Wholesome Wave, and let’s hope this James Beard Award is just a beginning of increasing the awareness of the movement he is helping to amplify – increasing the accessibility of fresh foods to the food insecure.

For more information about Wholesome Wave visit their website at https://www.wholesomewave.org/.