The Rise of Food Politics: A Conversation with Michel Nischan

Cedric Angeles

Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave, a national food system advocacy group based in Connecticut, sees a future where food is as much a part of the political conversation as healthcare and the economy. He suggests that food could become the lens through which these hot button issues are the viewed, a missing link that politicians should, he argues, begin to leverage.

But that day certainly has not arrived. In the political circus otherwise known as the 2016 election, the subject of food and agriculture rarely passes the lips of our elected officials, much less among those running for office. Yet, a social movement around food continues to foment.

In the months leading up to the November presidential election, Modern Farmer is reaching out to leaders in the food movement for their insight on how a healthy, just and sustainable food system could become a central facet of the national political agenda. We spoke with Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, about what a national food policy might look like, and heard from chef Tom Colicchio, co-founder of Food Policy Action, as he manned a food truck at the Democratic National Convention.

This week we continue the conversation with Nischan, also an esteemed chef, and chief architect of one of the largest and most politically-engaged food advocacy groups in the country. Wholesome Wave is known for its work to make nutritious food available to more low income people, and has advocated successfully for the continual expansion of SNAP benefits in recent years.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Modern Farmer: Food and farming seems to be the last thing on any politician’s mind in this wild and wonky election year. Has that been your experience as well?

Michel Nischan: That’s largely true, but on Bernie Sanders’ campaign website he published his position on regional food systems and stuff like that. Not a big surprise because of the progressive nature of how Vermont deals with local and regional food systems. But it’s true with mainstream politicians, generally. Other than Michelle Obama doing the Let’s Move campaign, it was never part of Barack Obama’s last two campaigns, either. So it’s completely common to have food, as important as it is, not to be part of a political campaign platform. Unfortunately.

MF: I’ll ask you the same question I have asked our other interviewees: What in your mind is keeping food policy from being higher on the political agenda?

MN: Frankly, the lack of awareness in the general public at large, beyond the 1 to 5 percent who can shop at farmer’s markets, go to Whole Foods, choose farm-to-table restaurants, buy CSA shares etc. I think food has the most powerful impact of any single subject on human health, environmental health, societal health, and economic health.

MF: So what are folks like us doing wrong?

MN: One thing that the Good Food movement has not done a great job of is engaging the everyday American in a meaningful way around the fact that what they do with their food, and the policies around food, can have a tremendous impact on their children’s health, their children’s performance in school, the cleanliness and purity of drinking water, and all the other environmental issues, economic opportunity etc. Food businesses are one of them most classic small business opportunities, whether it’s to be a small or midsize farmer, an aggregator, a co-packer, a restaurateur. I think restaurants are one of the largest employers in the world. There’s just a lack of awareness of it, frankly.

So until the candidates know, or feel, that it is something that the larger electorate really cares about—deeply gives a shit about—I don’t think there is any motivation for them to have food as part of their platform.

Until the candidates know, or feel, that it is something that the larger electorate really cares about—deeply gives a shit about—I don’t think there is any motivation for them to have food as part of their platform.

MF: At least under Obama and the USDA there has been a fair bit of attention put on local and regional food systems—through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, for example—which I think was really driven by a recognition of the economic impact that type of food system can have.

MN: I can’t speak for Trump’s position on agriculture at all, but I do know that type of work was under Hillary Clinton’s purview when she was a junior senator in New York. She had a pretty good ag team put together with Melissa Ho and a variety of other folks that were really pushing for better urban-rural connections between New York City and New York State, and working to make it more economically viable to get New York State grown products into the biggest city in North America. So I would suspect that, like in the Obama administration, were she to get into office that they would continue to support the progress that we’ve seen on things like incentivizing SNAP for fruits and vegetables, organic farming research, and all of the community food projects that we’ve seen supported at the USDA.

MF: Wholesome Wave has done a lot of work to influence the farm bill, particularly in regard to expanding SNAP benefits. What’s the latest in that effort?

MN: Now for the first time ever SNAP can be used to purchase things in advance, but the only thing it can be used to purchase in advance is a CSA share. That’s pretty monumental in and of itself. It doesn’t get a lot of attention. So there have been gains over the last few farm bills that have benefited farmers and producers and community-based nonprofit organizations relative to local and regional food systems. But it tends to be $20 million here are $100 million dollars there in a $970 billion bill.

MF: What would give politicians greater license to focus on these issues?

MN: My thought is that the greatest opportunity for any candidate to get into this is through the half trillion dollars a year we spend treating diet-related diseases—taxpayers paying for diet-related medication, organ replacement, dialysis etc. Diet-related diseases are very expensive to treat. It’s a lot less expensive to have a policy that allows Medicaid to reimburse certain healthy food choices as prevention. It’s a lot cheaper to give someone the food they need to avoid diabetes, especially when they are struggling with poverty, than have them get sick. Obviously we are not going to let them die, we’re not going to make them hang onto a bad liver or bad kidneys, so Medicaid and Medicare covers those things. But food is a lot cheaper.

The economic impact of being able to have that half trillion dollars evaporate by making healthier food more affordable seems like it would be a pretty monumental policy shift that could get somebody a lot of attention.

MF: In my conversation with Tom Colicchio he said that he sees a need for the hunger advocacy movement and the Good Food movement to join forces. It seems like that’s something you guys are really focused on at Wholesome Wave.

MN: Absolutely. In fact, Wholesome Wave partners with food banks in Arizona and New Hampshire in our National Nutrition Incentive Network. Food banks play a really critical and important role distributing incentive benefits and letting folks that qualify for SNAP or food stamps know that they can actually double the value of those benefits if they use them to purchase fruits and vegetables. In any one community a single food bank can serve thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. So they are a powerful distribution partner of ours.

MF: In your mind, what’s keeping these two social movements from working together more constructively?

MN: One of the issues that makes it difficult sometimes for the Good Food movement and the anti-hunger movement is they get stuck on stuff like taxing soda and dis-incentivizing less healthy food purchases. So instead of getting together and aligning on what they can agree on and fighting together for those things, they will often get on each other’s nerves or fail to fully back each others efforts because there might be a couple of issues that they don’t completely align on.

One of the things that we have seen in big business, like the oil industry and so many others, is that even though they are fierce competitors, when something happens to jeopardize their profits they will get together, set their differences aside and try to figure out how they as an industry will approach the government to protect their interests. Believe me, these companies don’t agree on everything, but they do a very good job of aligning on things that they believe will benefit all of them. I think we can take a page from that playbook in working to align the Good Food movement and the hunger movement.

MF: What is the latest and greatest at Wholesome Wave?

MN: We are growing. We’re in 43 states now. And our fruit and vegetable prescription program is really gaining traction. We just started a relationship with Target in Los Angeles where they are funding fruit and vegetable prescriptions at Target stores and farmers markets. This is the kind of policy pilot that we think really has a lot of potential when we start looking at non-farm bill money getting steered toward healthier food choices.

The farm bill is finite. And there are so many things packaged into each farm bill, so many people going after the money. So looking at other policy opportunities where there is a connection that makes sense to invest in for food, especially for underserved consumers, is a good idea.

MF: How exactly does the prescription program work?

MN: The fruit and vegetable prescription program is very simple. Doctors and nurse practitioners at participating community health centers or public hospitals who have at-risk patients who might be hypertensive, pre-diabetic, overweight—all those co-morbidities that indicate there is a high chance that this low income patient is going to end up with a diet-related disease, whether heart disease or diabetes or both, or a stroke—they can make that diagnosis and then give a prescription that patient can exchange for free fruits and vegetables. So they can increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables in a measured amount, and then be measured monthly for their health outcomes.

We just started a relationship with Target in Los Angeles where they are funding fruit and vegetable prescriptions at Target stores and farmers markets.

The doctors and nurse practitioners partner with nutritionists who give the health counseling and meal counseling. Our community-based partners do cooking demos at the farmers markets, which are very popular.

MF: Has the program been around long enough for you to publish results?

MN: Yes, and we’ve seen really powerful outcomes. Forty-eight percent of indexed patients drop their BMI [body mass index] in a 14-week intervention. That’s pretty powerful stuff just by increasing someone’s consumption of fruits and vegetables. If the program with Target works well, we will probably expand into other markets so we can start reaching the numbers of patients that we need to produce a viable study that can be taken to OMB [the White House’s Office of Management and Budget] and scored. We would love to see healthy food choices be reimbursable as Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Just to put it in context, the largest line item on Medicaid is dialysis for type II diabetes. The single most expensive thing that a taxpayer pays for is dialysis for people who have a disease that could have been prevented if they changed the way that they ate. The problem is that many people in low income communities cannot afford to change the way that they eat.

MF: Sounds like a logical connection, yet politicians seem unable, or unwilling, to act on it.

MN: We think it’s just common sense. It’s just about getting the right champions in the right seats in Congress and in the White House who really understand that in America, which is such a great agricultural nation, that shifting public dollars towards buying things like fruits and vegetables is just good business. If we put more specialty cropland into production it creates more jobs, more specialized equipment is needed, the support services sector would rise. And people’s healthcare costs would come down. I just can’t believe that nobody would make that freaking connection! It makes my head want to fall off and roll down the street for a while. It’s such a no-brainer.

MF: I understand that Wholesome Wave engages in formal lobbying on Capitol Hill. What does that look like?

MN: We do. A lot of it is that we remain connected with key decision-makers on both sides of the aisle. Our community-based partners are very good at coming into line around key times like when the committee versions of the farm bill are going through the marker process.

Everybody wants to do a “Hill day.” A lot of people think that Hill days are a big thing. They are definitely good, but it is actually more powerful when a politician goes home during recess and they get invited to a farmers market or a farm stand or a community health center, and they see these programs at work. To see SNAP consumers spending their dollars buying fruits and vegetables and the farmers being elated at the fact that their business went up 30 percent in a single market and they’ve been introduced to new consumers who now want fruits and vegetables and can afford them—that is powerful stuff.

If we put more specialty cropland into production it creates more jobs, more specialized equipment is needed, the support services sector would rise. And people’s healthcare costs would come down. I just can’t believe that nobody would make that freaking connection! It makes my head want to fall off and roll down the street for a while.

Or church pancake breakfasts where the churches are raising money to double SNAP at farmers markets, or to support fruit and vegetable prescriptions—when they see that happening at home, and then we actually visit the Hill during the regular course of business, rather than a blitz, it’s easier to have a friendlier, more open conversation with a member of Congress in their office, whether they are Republican or Democrat, because they’ve seen it. And they’re like yeah, I saw this, I know what you’re talking about. Thank you for coming in and helping me understand better. The follow-up is better that way.

So it’s not like formal lobbying. Though [a Texas lobbyist]* was really instrumental in the last farm bill. To write language for the farm bill you do need somebody who is a registered professional lobbyist, so they can submit language for consideration. But it is not the sort of lobbying that you will see for conventional ag, chemical companies, the oil industry etc, where they send in a team of lobbyists and there’s a lot of horsetrading and perks and implications for future political support and all that stuff. We don’t go in and say, hey this is going to get you reelected. We go in and say this is something that is good for your constituency, and guess what, you’ve already heard from your constituents and they’re asking you to support this. So it’s really more about honoring the desire of your home community than it is about the kind of formal lobbying that everybody thinks of.

MF: Who are the politicians in Washington or elsewhere that have most supported your work? Anyone you want to give a shout out to?

MN: Definitely Debbie Stabenow [D- Michigan], who has been amazing. And behind her Chellie Pingree [D- Maine] and Kirsten Gillibrand [D- New York], among many others. There’s Pat Roberts, who was the chair [of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry] the first time the incentive program [the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program] got submitted in the farm bill. [Editors’ correction 8/15/16: The chair at this time was Debbie Stabenow, not Pat Roberts.] The house actually passed a version of the farm bill that had nutrition incentives in it, John Boehner [R-Ohio] did not allow it to go to the floor—so no shout outs to Boehner! [laughs]. The second time around it was Frank Lucas of Oklahoma who is the chair of the Republican ag committee. He made the incentive program his chairman’s mark in his version of the farm bill. Lucas and Stabenow worked together to pass the farm bill during a time when nothing else was passing in a really ugly political climate.

MF: Some of those names that you mention are among the top ranked senators in Food Policy Action’s Food Policy Scorecard.

MN: Speaking of Food Policy Action, what I love about them—just to give them a shout out—is that evaluating a politician based on how they vote on food is probably one of the best ways to help Americans understand their choices at the polls.

Here’s my theory. Although I don’t think it’s theory, I think it’s true. Every time an election comes around everybody lines up behind international policy and security, abortion rights, things like that. So let’s take the right to life thing. Somebody can be pro-choice, and they are pro-choice for a variety of spiritual reasons, philosophical reasons, whatever it might be. Same thing with pro-life—it is a spiritual reason, it’s an empathy thing. You can be pro-life or pro-choice and it doesn’t mean that either candidate is either a good or a bad person because it is is something so personal, so emotional, so spiritual. But if you are voting to take the food off the plate of a grade school kid from a Title I family, you now are robbing them of a meal that they were going to have that day. You’re not a good person.

So chances are, any other vote that you cast is likely going to be cast in your own self-interest, rather than in the interests of your constituents. So I think it’s a lot easier to evaluate a candidate through the lens of how they vote on food to really be able to judge whether they are a good candidate at all, or not, on every other issue that they could possibly vote on. I think that point needs to be sounded a little bit louder. I think if you could really help the American public understand that the Food Policy Action scorecard is a really powerful tool in helping them make much more informed decisions about who they are voting for, then we could actually see food starting to make it onto the platform in an election year.

MF: What a revolution that would be!

MN: Yes. I’ll tell you another theory I have about how we can actually get food on the radar of candidates. Obama won by 2 million votes, and that was seen as a landslide in a country of over 300 million people, at least half of which are eligible to vote. So if you look at the number of people in this country who are food insecure, which is 66 million, of those there are probably around 25 million decision-makers, people who are eligible to vote. So if you got just half of those folks to actually get excited about the possible future of being able to feed their families well and have them show up at the polls and vote for candidates based on food issues, that would be like the Bernie-style revolution everyone talks about. If you got 12 million people showing up voting on food issues, now that’s a landslide.

If you got 12 million people showing up voting on food issues, now that’s a landslide.

We’ve been working with Food Policy Action on the notion of how to take the underserved consumers that have had access to fruit and vegetable prescriptions, the incentive programs etc., and help them understand one of the greatest things they can do—to directly engage and be the heroes of that solution and drive the setting of that kind of policy even faster—is to show up at the polls and vote. These are folks that have the least amount of time, work the most hours, feel the most disenfranchised and hopeless, so they tend not to vote. I think there is a real powerful opportunity there.

MF: There are certainly a lot of groups jumping on the bandwagon. And then there are people like Willie Nelson, who you’ve been spending some time with, who have been on the bandwagon for decades.

MN: Yes, he’s a good man! I’ve known him for a long time. He’s one of the most awesome, normal, gentle, unassuming human beings that you would ever meet. I think the guy genuinely loves everybody. His whole family is like that. Real genuine human citizens who care deeply about important things. And Willie’s wife is an exceptional cook and quite a foodie.

MF: And you recently had the opportunity to cook for them?

MN: I’ve had that opportunity quite a few times. They do this thing called the Luck Reunion every year, and Willie’s wife called me and said this thing has turned into a really great gathering, but the food isn’t quite matching the spirit of the rest of the thing. Would you mind giving us a hand? I went down there with a couple chef friends of mine two years ago and cooked for them, and they said next time let’s make it a fundraiser for Wholesome Wave. So this last year we were able to raise a little money and have a lot of fun, and are going to do it again next year.

* Editors’ note 8/15/16: By request, we removed the name and organization of the Texas lobbyist mentioned. 

The Rise of Food Politics: A Conversation with Michel Nischan