We've been complaining about this for years. About how the federal government subsidizes corn and soy, making fast food so cheap that fresh food can't compete. That a huge Coke costs less than a small bottle of water, a box of nuggets half as much as a salad, and a stack of burgers far less than a pound of apples. We've raised our voices, railed against the injustice of it all -- of the commodities system, and the overflowing corn silos, and the surpluses that make reasonably-priced fresh food seem somehow exorbitant and out of reach. But this man above, this man, has done something about it.
Meet Michel Nischan.
Some might recognize him as the chef/owner of The Dressing Room, a restaurant in Westport, Connecticut he cofounded with the late Paul Newman. But Nischan is also a cookbook author, pioneer, and a warm yet determined sustainable foods advocate committed to turning the whole mess of government subsidies on its head. He and a team of colleagues founded the nonprofit Wholesome Wave Foundation almost three years ago to provide the missing link -- the "roux" as Nischan describes it -- between traditionally underserved neighborhoods without access to fresh, affordable food, and farmers who grow food in local communities, by leveraging existing public and private funds and programs. "We're trying to link underserved urban communities and underserved rural communities to food, without a middleman," he told me.
One of the Foundation's most exciting initiatives is the Double Value Coupon Program, which doubles the value of food stamps (now called SNAP benefits) when redeemed for produce at farmers' markets in participating states. So those who couldn't afford fresh food are better able to.
Nischan wanted to debunk one fundamentally faulty assumption: that food deserts arose in blighted communities because the demand for healthier options wasn't there. Not so, he asserts, and Wholesome Wave is currently collecting economic data that shows that when fresher food is more affordable, people will buy it in droves. In the next phase of data collection, the foundation will study how access plus affordability may translate into measurable health benefits in these same communities.
Two weeks ago, the Obama administration mentioned Wholesome Wave and the Double Value Coupon program in its May 11 "White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President." I can understand why.
It has been a long time that big ag lobbies have enjoyed depressed market prices. By incentivizing fresh fruits and vegetables, Wholesome Wave is leveling the playing field, just a little, at long last.