Michel Nischan

The Rise of Food Politics: A Conversation with Michel Nischan

This article originally appeared on Modern Farmer.

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.

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.


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.


Continue reading this interview by Brian Barth with Michel Nischan on Modern Farmer

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