This is the second in a series of Q&As with the chefs who have participated in the Chefs Boot Camp program. Read our interview with chef Jamie Simpson here.
Modern Farmer: What inspired you to become involved in advocacy, specifically helping to provide lower-income families access to fresh food?
Michel Nischan: Both of my parents were farmers, so I was raised knowing what truly good food is. When my son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 5, my son’s doctor told me that food would be the most important tool in providing Chris with his best chance for a long and healthy life. My wife and I realized that fresh food, especially vegetables and fruits, would help keep Chris healthy, and so we changed the way we ate as a family. It didn’t take long for me to decide I could not, in good conscience, feed my customers at my restaurant what I would not feed my son, so I modified how I cooked as a chef. I felt lucky to be able to afford the fresh foods I needed and wanted to feed my family and customers, but was saddened at the reality that millions of Americans can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s when I began my work advocating for low-income families to have affordable access to fresh food.
“I haven’t had to find time [to dedicate to my cause]; it’s how I live my life. It’s how I was raised. My mother taught me to always be who I am, not just during my working hours. So that is an ideal I live by on a daily basis.”
MF: Do you feel that as a chef you have a greater responsibility to advocate for the less fortunate than people in other professions?
MN: I think everyone, in every profession, has a responsibility and a role to play in advocating for those who are less fortunate. Chefs specifically have a crucial role to play in reinventing our food system. People who feed others have both the power, and a unique ability to shift broad food trends and practices across the country. Chefs, as a business community, purchase large amounts of food. This market power provides our community a distinct advantage in gaining the ear of policymakers.
MF: You began Wholesome Wave back in 2007. How has the program changed over the years and did you have any idea how big it would become? What’s next?
MN: When I founded Wholesome Wave, I was passionate about addressing the lack of affordability and the lack of access to healthy food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. People who are struggling with poverty tend to live in places where no healthy food choices exist. However, I realized that the greatest barrier these families faced was the lack of affordability. Thinking like a restaurateur, the way to address this was to create a level playing field for purchasing fruits and vegetables. So we created a program that doubled the value of SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, at farmers markets. In summary, it creates a two-for-one sale at the markets. In our wildest dreams, we never thought this program would catch on so fast and also bring proven economic growth to the local communities by increasing business growth for the farmers themselves. As a result of this unanticipated impact, the greatest change we have experienced, is growth.
MF: Can you tell us a little about your and Eric Kessler’s work with the Chefs Boot Camp, and what it has been like working with other socially-conscious chefs in the program?
MN: Eric is a truly remarkable guy! During the evolution of Arabella Advisors, Eric created a concept to help connect his celebrity musician clients more deeply to advocacy by identifying causes that truly resonated with them personally. He felt you’re the best spokesperson or advocate when you’re advocating for something you deeply believe in. Once a celebrity connects to a personal cause, they can have a tremendous impact elevating awareness, and even getting citizens at large to either advocate or vote. The efforts were successful. Eric felt that, if such an approach worked with musicians, it might likely work with well-known chefs. He did some research to find a chef with a history of advocacy and established trust within the culinary community and ended up reaching out to me. I was so blown away by the idea, that I bought-in instantly. He said: “Dude, let’s do this thing together.”
At the time, I was a trustee on the board of the James Beard Foundation. Eric joined the board, we pitched the idea, and the board voted to support as well as produce the boot camps. These boot camps are a truly rewarding platform for me to work from with other socially conscious chefs. To be able to inspire and be inspired is truly a gift. The ideas that have come out of these camps have such tremendous range, its incredible. For example, some chefs care about the humane slaughter of animals, others about migrant farm worker rights. It’s humbling to be part of encouraging potential change.
MF: How have you found the time to dedicate to your cause?
MN: I haven’t had to find time; it’s how I live my life. It’s how I was raised. My mother taught me to always be who I am, not just during my working hours. So that is an ideal I live by on a daily basis.
MF: Have you found that the restaurant business in general is open to the idea of advocacy?
The business in general, tends to be generous to a variety of causes, some do it because they see it as good publicity, others because they genuinely care. I think individual chefs and restaurateurs are the ones who become true leaders in using their platform to effectively advocate. Real change happens when an individual puts their passion into a mission they care about personally.
Want to learn more? Nischan suggests chefs go to #chefslead to learn about ways they can get involved.