“No one wants to tell people what to eat. We don’t want to offend anybody,” Michel Nischan, author, chef and CEO of Wholesome Wave said. What he has done is put farmers markets in low income areas. Some of these have been described as “food deserts” or areas with no major grocery stores but plenty of fast food outlets or mini-markets with lots of packaged, processed foods. “We started with the notion that we should work in underserved communities,” he said. Their Nourishing Neighborhood program doubles the value of food stamps when used to purchase fresh produce at participating farmers markets.
Nischan, a long time advocate of local, organic food, realized the high rates of obesity and diabetes in those same communities were in part due to a lack of access to fresh produce. So he began raising money to pilot a program that would double the value of food stamps now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, when used to purchase produce from a farmers market. WIC recipients, a nutritional program for women, infants and children, also qualify for the Double Value Coupons. He found donors, including Paul Newman and daughter Nell Newman, who believed in his vision. The program began in 2008 with 12 farmers markets.
They found immediate acceptance of the incentive program. “Even $3 makes a difference and $20 a week makes a monumental difference when it’s handed to a farmer,” Chef Nischan said. “Recipients flood the market and buy the fresh produce.”
Now in 18 states and nearly 150 markets, the double coupons are a success everywhere. When Nishan went to Miami, local chef/restaurateur Michael Schwartz backed the effort in part to lend support to local farmers who also benefit from the Wholesome Wave.
According to Nischan, in San Diego the market’s first year goal was $40,000 in revenue. It made $100,000. In the second year it increased to $200,000 with only $25,000 from the double coupon subsidies.
“SNAP redemption rates more than tripled at most markets that accepted the benefits with no additional incentive. At markets that ran out of incentive funds, the rates dipped, but remained remarkable high; once families shopped at the markets, they found produce they could afford,” Nishan said.
The program has given them a choice they did not have before. Nischan would like to see changes in the next farm bill. “Consider this: if just five percent of the $78 billion in SNAP benefits were released in the form of local fruit and vegetable incentives, the resulting $3.9 billion in incentives would cause $7.8 billion in produce purchasing power.”
Currently, American fruit and vegetable growers receive less than one half of one percent of agricultural subsidies according to Nischan. Corn, soy, cotton, wheat and rice receive the bulk of $10 billion in federal subsidies; one reason fresh produce is more expensive than processed food.
Nischan’s efforts are a win-win. People with low income get healthier and small, local farmers earn new revenue and develop new customers.
Please visit http://wholesomewave.org/ for more information.
Linda Mensinga was editor of Culinary Trends for 15 years, now a contributing writer. If you have a great restaurant, recipe or food you’d like to share please send an email. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Linda@culinarytrends.net.
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