While we sit and wait and hope and pray the government’s “top down'” approach to fixing the economy-by bailing out banks and automakers-ultimately works, I wanted to share a grassroots approach to addressing the nation’s health care crisis, that, as far as I can tell, is already paying off. It’s the brainchild of the legendary actor and humanitarian Paul Newman, whom we lost last summer, and his partner, chef and food policy advocate Michel Nischan – easily one of the most dynamic and inspiring people I’ve ever met. The Newman-Nischan team partnered with local farmers in Connecticut to bring fresh, seasonable, locally grown food to patrons at The Dressing Room, Nischan’s restaurant. Now, their Wholesome Wave Foundation has taken this effort to a whole new level.
The mission behind Wholesome Wave is simple: everyone deserves to eat locally grown, healthy, sustainable food. Let’s face it, produce is expensive. It costs a lot more money to eat foods that nourish you instead of fare that is overly processed and mass produced. For those on a tight budget (senior citzens, families on state assistance), eating sustainably can be out of the question because food dollars stretch further by buying inexpensive, and oftentimes, less healthy, food. So the Wholesome Wave Foundation, under the direction of Michel Nischan, (its President and CEO), has created a way to get healthy food into underserved, vulnerable neighborhoods and make it much more affordable. Nischan created a Double Value Coupon Program , raising money through private foundations, that doubles the value of food assistance checks (for seniors, families, and the W.I.C. – Women, Infants, Children) used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets in or near their neighborhoods. This does not cost taxpayers any additional money; it simply stretches the value of an existing program. This initiative is currently underway at farmers’ markets in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Holyoke, Massachusetts, Atlanta, D.C., and five other states. True Environmental Justice!
I went to the Park City Harvest farmers’ market, stationed conveniently outside Brigeport’s health department (where people receive those food assistance checks) and was overwhelmed at the sheer brilliance of the idea. It couldn’t be easier for people to eat healthy because now they could literally walk 50 yards, cash their checks for double the value, and use the tokens to buy fresh produce for their family. One lovely woman, who was carrying her beautiful daughter Grace told me that she has four kids, some with food allergies, and it is extremely difficult to stretch the food budget to include fruits and vegetables, even though she knows her kids need this to avoid getting sick. With this program, she can now afford to buy more of the good stuff for her kids.
Park City Harvest regularly brings in about $2,500 when it runs the farmers’ markets on Wednesdays. There’s nobody more pumped about this than Bridgeport’s Health Director Dr. Marian Evans, who says obesity is a major health issue among her clients; providing them with healthy nutrition right at their doorstep, at very affordable prices, galvanizes her mission. She’s also been offering cooking demonstrations for her clients and she’s working on ways to keep the farmers’ market open during the off-season. Michel Nischan and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch have even bigger plans: they’re working with University of Connecticut to turn some of the city’s acres of brownfields into community farms. That’s next year’s goal.
When I asked Nischan how he thought his buddy Paul Newman would view the scene of a bustling farmers’ market in the heart of Bridgeport, he choked up when he told me that these were the kinds of things that moved Paul: “He just wants everbody to have an opportunity to have a bite at the same sandwich.”
Christina DeFranco, Environmental Journalist | CT Documentary and Video Producer