Photo by Mpu Dinani/A-Game Photography.

Why the Next President (Probably) Won’t Destroy Our Food System

We spoke to chef Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave to find out whether we're looking at four long years of disastrous food policy.

Nov 8 2016, 7:31pm

Photo by Mpu Dinani/A-Game Photography.

Today's election is the culmination of months of bitter sniping and rancor, but that's not about to end any time soon. Tomorrow, tens of millions of Americans will wake up pissed off and horrified at the nation's choice for the next President of the United States.

But if it's any consolation, at least our food system probably won't change very much over the next four years.

That's according to Michel Nischan, a three-time James Beard award-winning chef and founder of Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit that works to increase access to affordable, healthy foods for underserved communities. One of its most impactful and innovative initiatives is getting doctors to prescribe patients with diet-related diseases prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables, which are redeemed at local markets.

Because both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been relatively silent on food issues during the course of this campaign, we asked Nischan to give us a little insight about what the next four years might look like when it comes to food policy.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Michel. So, let's get right into it: Will Wholesome Wave have to adjust its approach toward policy makers if Trump is elected? Michel Nischan: Our approach to policy makers will always remain the same.

If Trump were to win, it would accelerate states taking a larger role in feeding their hungry populations through block-granting SNAP, which we think would be a catastrophe. But there are states with fairly forward-thinking commissioners of agriculture and governors, most of whom are Republican, that are directly connected to the public health of the people in their state, and to the agricultural economy in their state.

I often remind folks that when Wholesome Wave was founded, we did a lot of work with George W. Bush's USDA. People thought we were really smart by coming at it from the perspective of celebrating people who rely on SNAP as American consumers, rather than clients or recipients, which is what food banks refer to them as. Folks on SNAP benefits spend $70 to $80 billion in federal dollars, plus 91 cents on the dollar of their own money on groceries. That's a $132 to $135 billion retail food consumer marketplace. That's powerful stuff. Anyone Trump would bring in on the ag side would be looking at market opportunities. That's what's on our minds.


Michel Nischan. Photo by Tom Hopkins.

So you don't think Trump himself will have an effect on food policy? God only knows—this guy is so unpredictable. But having a leader like that just puts the onus in the hands of people trying to deal with these issues, and I have great hope in the intellect and spirit of people working on these issues, and we'll be able to move these issues forward. Otherwise it's difficult to sleep at night and wake up in the morning.

I like to remind my fellow Americans that the hope they put in the President is misplaced. You need to vote in the very important elections in years in between. That's determining who is getting into Congress. Folks can really vote on food issues.

I'm believing enough in democracy, with checks and balances in place, that the whole thing won't go down the drain. I'm more worried about the Supreme Court than anything else.

Wouldn't the same be true of Clinton? She hasn't exactly put food issues at the forefront of her campaign. I think people put way too much expectation on President Barack Obama to make food a major issue. Michelle Obama did what she did, and what they did was pretty spectacular. But I think the fact that Congress pledged to gut anything that Obama made a marquee issue actually would have put Let's Move at risk.

You know, I love Michael Pollan, I love Mark Bittman—they're good people, friends, great thinkers. But I think blaming the President for not putting more emphasis on food policy is ill-placed. It shows a lack of understanding of how the greater system works, and the political vitriol in that environment that a chief executive is working in. With all the crazy shit going on with China, Russia, Iran, ISIS, and stuff like that, those are the kind of things a chief executive needs to deal with. The President of the United States is kind of one of the operating officers for the world. Food is a domestic issue, and one that they leave in the hands of the agencies.


Photo by Mpu Dinani/A-Game Photography.

What about Melania? I can't see her continuing Michelle Obama's work with the Let's Move campaign. There is no question that Michelle Obama's emphasis on childhood obesity had absolute influence on all those agencies, because SNAP is largely legislated through the Farm Bill. A very high-profile person in the administration made it an issue. Other First Ladies had a variety of other issues during their administrations, but the work of the other First Ladies didn't go away.

So, if not Trump nor Clinton, what should we be worried about, then? I'm more interested in midterm elections and voting on Congresspeople than expecting one person to pick up a flag and carry it for the rest of America, because that becomes a target for interest groups. If a president says, "Part of my legacy is bringing food to the forefront," that legacy becomes a target and even harder to protect.

Trump can't singlehandedly destroy our food system. I have faith in agencies, Commissioners of Agriculture. Yes, there's some wackadoos in both camps, Republicans and Democrats alike. Some really old-school thinkers when it comes to food and agriculture. But there are more that actually understand agriculture, live in these states, administer law in these states. They know they've got millions of hungry people on SNAP. I have a lot of faith in that part of the system. Those politicians are more connected to people on the ground in the place they call home.

Wholesome Wave will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year, either under Clinton or Trump. What's on the horizon? I'm particularly excited about intensifying interest in our Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) approach. There's now pretty broad awareness that diet-related disease has surpassed smoking as the number-one killer of Americans. Costs to treat diet-related disease is almost half a trillion dollars a year. We're excited about the opportunity to tap into existing Medicare and Medicaid programs, opportunities to invest in food as prevention to avoid the disease so you're not paying for very expensive treatment in back end. We finally got good information on what dialysis costs, and it's like $300 per day. It's a direct result of type-2 diabetes and it's the single biggest line item on Medicare's budget. But for only $300 a month, you can increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables for ten Americans. For things like type-2 diabetes and heart disease, there's great scientific evidence that those risks go down drastically with every serving of fruit and vegetables.

The only thing I'm anxious about is that, all-in, we're reaching somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Americans—but there are 64 million Americans who are food insecure. That just ain't good enough. So we're retooling, finding a pathway so we can go from serving hundreds of thousands of Americans to serving millions. We just did a partnership with Target in LA—there's about 20 Targets in LA, plus farmers' markets in south central LA. That's exciting to us.

Some people might argue that these companies don't do all-local, or all-organic. But the reality is that these grocery stores reach tens of millions of people, so it's amazing news. When you see Target go local, when you see Walmart doubling their local produce, that drives supply-chain change, gives small and mid-size farmers the opportunity to scale up. Companies like Walmart, Target, Kroger, and Wegmans are really pushing the envelope on more local food, healthier food, working with product manufacturers to make healthier products. There isn't a government in the world that can do that. That's another reason why I'm a little more hopeful than some others at this time.

Thanks for speaking with us, Michel.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.