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Feature Fri Nov 13 2009
We get jaded with age. The older we get, the harder we are to impress. "Ah ha!" light bulb moments grow fewer and farther between. Moments that when you see or hear something so smart or so innovative, you can't help but smile and think "what a great idea" or "how smart is that?" When that same idea is geared toward helping the underprivileged and underserved, it's all the more impressive.
Enter Michel Nischan, champion of the farmer, James Beard award-winning chef and New York Times best-selling author. On the forefront of the NY culinary scene for two decades, he was the force behind Heartbeat at the W Hotel, where he originated his "Cuisine of well being" after his child was diagnosed with diabetes. He later partnered with actor Paul Newman at the Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant in Westport, CT, where he holds court today.
Nischan is an advocate of organic, sustainable cuisine and all its social implications. He's a nationally recognized authority and one of the leading champions of this movement. I'm honored to call him my friend and colleague and can attest that whenever we work together, he's responsible for numerous "ah ha!" moments.
It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks. If you hang with Michel, you're bound to learn something.
One of the many hats Nischan wears is as policy activist. As president and CEO of his not-for-profit Wholesome Wave Foundation, he has directed the foundation toward grassroots initiatives that bring fresh local foods to those most in need — low income communities. This diverse community outreach originated in the farmers market he organized in the parking lot of the Dressing Room, and has escalated to 10 states and 60 markets.
Chicago is the latest to benefit from his brilliant idea. The 61st Street Farmer's Market is the pilot program for Chicago and serves as an example that hopefully one day will spread to all farmers markets.
In the vast food desert of inner cities — places where supermarkets don't venture and the cheap, empty calories of fast food reign supreme — there is a need for wholesome organic products. It's more from lack of access than lack of need or want. Everyone would prefer to feed their family better if they could.
Nischan's idea was to coordinate funding via various grants, in turn matching or doubling the market value of WIC and Link users' benefits. $20 gets you $40 and so on. A win-win situation. The farmer's sell more product and the people in need get quality ingredients to help nourish their vulnerable families.
For those unfamiliar with WIC or Link, WIC is a federally funded health and nutrition program for women, infants and children. Link provides food stamp assistance through the Department of Human Services.
While you can't legislate nutrition, you can make it easier and more attractive for people to eat well. Warning signs, food pyramids and calorie counts aren't nearly as effective as money, honey.
Given the option for fresh food, plus a financial incentive, you'll find that most people choose to eat better food whenever possible. This idea helps bridge the gap to make higher quality sustainable food affordable to all.
Bringing it to the 'hood is what we're talking about.
Utilizing Wholesome Wave's model, Nischan partners with local chefs and nonprofits that have preexisting outreach infrastructure in place and takes his idea on the road. Wherever he lands, it's being met with phenomenal success.
A Wave Hits Chicago
Nischan has been coming to Chicago for the last few months to act as catalyst and counsel to help guide the implementation of this idea. Over the course of a few meetings, Experimental Station, the organization that runs the 61st Street market, has partnered with Art Smith's Common Threads, Growing Power and Family Farmed.
All four local nonprofits have perfectly aligned goals and mission statements and provide the local muscle to help cut through the politics to make this happen. They are already involved in the community and have relationships in place. Even Nischan was surprised with the speed they've been able to progress.
Also enlisted for support and outreach are some other friends of Nischan — a Chicago food world "A" list. Chefs Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard are all on board as local advisors.
I've tagged along with Nischan and have seen the results.
The launch for the double value WIC/Link program at the 61st Street Farmers Market was Oct. 3. The figures tell the story better than I could:
On Oct. 3, the market had its biggest day overall and also its best for Link sales. In one day, they had about $500 in Link sales, 50 percent more than for the entire season last year. They then matched those purchases and handed out an equal amount of Link Dollars in the form of Double Value Coupons.
For 2009, they're on track to do 400 percent more in Link sales than they did in 2008 — and that's before you include the Double Value Coupons, of which they've already passed out $1,000.
Of the $1,000 in Double Value Coupons and Link Dollars given out, $585 has been used. The coupons expire Dec.19 (the last day of the 2009 season). The $585 was spent as follows:
• $325 on vegetables and fruit
• $136 spread between baked goods, eggs and misc. food items
• $68 on preserves, jams, salsas, etc.
• $56 on cheese
Through the strategic efforts and support of Family Farmed, the double value program is set to expand to farmers markets in North Lawndale, Englewood and Bronzeville next season, with Rogers Park and Logan Square considering it as well.
Getting the Word Out
One of the largest problems faced is getting the message out and increasing community awareness of its availability. When explained, near 100 percent choose to participate. Everyone understands two for one.
Education and availability are paramount. Lack of culinary options due to income or location has created a disenfranchised population. Generations of relief recipients are cut off from today's fresh food trends by not having the availability of fresh wholesome goods in their neighborhoods, the income to afford it nor the know-how to use them. Wholesome Wave partners with local action-based collaboratives that already have ongoing missions serving these communities, and provides them with seed money and expertise.
For instance, Experimental Station views itself as an incubator of innovative cultural, educational and environmental projects and small-scale enterprises, and has a long history of supporting "socially, artistically and environmentally significant projects."
Family Farmed's core values include "building public and private partnerships that support the growth of regional food systems that benefit farmers, consumers, and businesses" while they advocate for access to healthy and affordable food.
Common Threads has a project in place teaching kids about nutritious food, and how to cook it. The focus is on different cultures and countries. ("Today we're visiting Italy. This is what they eat and how they make it...") Many of the kids actually go home and cook what they learned for their parents.
Growing Power offers produce boxes, a type of community supported agriculture, donated by the farmers that they sell for $17 for 20lbs. of fresh local produce. That's a lot or product for the money. A half size version is available for $9 as well.
All of these programs work in alliance with each other. This in turn nourishes the economy by bringing new dollars to small-scale farmers and producers selling at local farmers' markets, and keeping federal and foundation dollars in the local community.
It also benefits the environment by reducing average "food miles" traveled and valuing local production and sustainable farming.
Changing bad eating habits is the task at hand. Telling someone they need more calcium for strong bones is all well and good, but providing education and options and helping people get the requisite dairy products into their refrigerator is a godsend.
This one small program will touch thousands of lives. I'd say Nischan's karma is golden.
About the Author
Alan Lake has been a professional chef for over 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He's also been a professional musician most of his life and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities" and views his food as he does his music.