The TFT Interview: Michel Nischan and Wholesome Wave
When I talk to Slow Foodists, locavores, and leaders of this country’s sustainable food movement about the need to ensure that fresh, seasonal produce is accessible and affordable to low-income families, they often reply that farmers’ markets universally accept food stamps. That used to be true. But ever since the advent of the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card in 1999 (a debit card that replaced paper food stamps nationally) many farmers stopped accepting food stamps because they couldn’t afford to buy a wireless EBT machine (they cost around $1000). As a result, today only 21% of the country’s farmers’ markets accept food stamps, according to the Community Food Security Coalition. (Food stamps, by the way, are now known as SNAP benefits, which stands for the none-to-snappy Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)
Fortunately, there are many local and national efforts afoot to change this—and to expand the number of low-income shoppers who frequent the markets that do accept SNAP benefits. One of the most successful of these efforts is being led by Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that has been fanning out across the country with its Double Value Coupon Program, doubling the value of SNAP benefits used at participating farmers’ markets. If you’re on SNAP, and you plan to spend $10 at one of these markets, Wholesome Wave will match your $10 so you’ll have a total of $20 to spend on fresh produce.
Wholesome Wave’s goal is to make fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable while at the same time supporting struggling small-scale farmers. Ultimately, Wholesome Wave would like to see the Federal government divert some of the $110 billion that’s annually allocated for food assistance programs such as SNAP and Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) away from processed foods and to healthier, local sources of food.
I spoke to Wholesome Wave founder and CEO Michel Nischan (also a chef and author of the cookbook Sustainably Delicious) about the misconception that only affluent people shop at farmers’ markets, how incentive programs can alter purchasing habits, and why it’s vital for the sustainable food movement to care about food justice.
Let’s talk about how Wholesome Wave works. Do you partner with food justice nonprofits or with farmers’ markets?
We partner with nonprofits. If our Double Value Coupon Program is to be successful, we have to be able to identify who is doing similar work on the ground because they are passionate about it—their mission and their values are to do outreach on food justice, food equity, and so on.
These nonprofits are already working at farmers’ markets and have established a relationship in the community. And because of their vision they understand the importance of gathering the data.
Our web site says we have 160 participating farmers’ markets, but I believe it’s closer to 170. Our program partners have recently added markets in Kentucky and Tennessee.
What happens when people are given incentive to buy fruits and vegetables?
A lot of people say that low-income folks don’t want fresh, real food. Our program debunks that. So far, anecdotal evidence from our Double Value Coupon Program strongly indicates that there is demand for healthier food. (Hard data will be available mid-February.)
Access is the least important A word. It’s a big one—there are many places where access doesn’t exist—but what people don’t realize is that the grocery stores were already in these low-income neighborhoods, and they left because shoppers couldn’t afford them. Affordability is more important than access.
What we hope to prove is that when the incentives go away, participation among the populations we target (people who live in food deserts) is high. They find out the same things we all do—that farmers’ markets are a safe place to bring the kids, that the food is not as expensive as you think.
What does Wholesome Wave do besides providing local nonprofits with matching funds?
We have a nonprofit partner that’s trying to improve food access, and they sure would love to do SNAP, but they’re small and limited in their resources. We’ll look at a nonprofit that’s doing great outreach without SNAP at their market—and we go in and help them get the EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) machine, help them get the application process going, give them seed money, and so on. We help them rewrite grants so they can get even greater forms of support. We incubate it. We go in and provide the warmer for the egg and the nest, and we provide the environment in which it can hatch. They already laid the egg.
What’s the ultimate goal of Wholesome Wave? Do you want to grow larger or are you acting as a catalyst?
We don’t want federal money to come to Wholesome Wave. Most of the $110 billion that goes to federal food assistance programs—$60 billion of it— gets spent on highly processed foods. Even though that’s a lot of money, each person gets so little that they can only afford to get Minute Rice or Hamburger Helper without the hamburger. We’d like [the USDA to] repurpose this money to subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables so it has a better outcome.
Our board member (and Executive Vice President) Gus Schumacher is a former Under Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA. He’s been working with federal agencies to share the data that we’re accumulating nationally. And policymakers are saying, “Hey, we need to look at these incentive programs.” Ideally, some of this federal money would be used to pay for a farmers’ market matching fund.
So it sounds like some of your partners now raise matching funds on their own?
Right. Even if we don’t continue to fund them, we remain in partnership with them. (Wholesome Wave is piloting a Fruit & Veggie RX program in which doctors write prescriptions for fruits and vegetables and measure family members’ blood pressure and BMI every month.)
Farm Fresh Rhode Island is one. Through their own State Department of Agriculture, partner grants, USDA specialty crop block grants and so on, they’ve been effective in not only raising money to double benefits, but giving technical assistance to other markets, doing outreach, and launching a food distribution system. They’ve evolved their work. It’s not just as a result of our programming. These guys are so talented—they really operate as entrepreneurs. Experimental Station in Chicago has done the same thing. They are increasing their efficacy and local funding so much that we anticipate they won’t need our help to match SNAP benefits.
To see if Wholesome Wave is at your farmers market, see here.
* Photo by Andre Baranowski
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