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2015 Humanitarian of the Year: Michel Nischan

Emily Carrus

May 04, 2015

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This award is given to an individual or organization working in the realm of food who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large.

More than three decades ago, Michel Nischan was an aspiring musician scrambling to make a living in Chicago. When his parents downsized to a smaller fixer-upper home in the area and Nischan showed up to help them paint, his mother was alarmed by his appearance.

“I was six feet three and 145 pounds, and when my mom saw me, she could count every rib in my body. She said, ‘We’ve got to get you a job in a restaurant. At least you’ll eat,’” Nischan recalls. Behind the stove proved to be a much more lucrative spot than on stage. Nischan’s first food gig at a breakfast truck stop became the launching point for his career as an innovative, esteemed chef and one of the most prominent voices guiding America toward a more affordable, more accessible, and more just food system.

It was a food system that Nischan had learned about early on in life, having spent childhood summers on his grandfather’s farm in Missouri. “I had a great awareness of farm life, [how] to raise and butcher animals, and hunt and fish. Our life revolved around food,” he says, noting that cooking was a natural extension of farm life. “Of course you could cook, because how else could you live?”

Nischan’s ingrained kitchen skills helped him advance quickly to more prominent restaurants. But no matter where he cooked he lamented the lack of fresh, local produce as he watched delivery after delivery of mealy and tasteless mass-produced pink tomatoes pass through the kitchen. So in 1982, when he became head chef at French restaurant Fleur De Lis in Milwaukee, Nischan began knocking on farmhouse doors to source the produce he craved. Many of the farms had switched from vegetable farming to specializing in more profitable crops like soy and corn, but on about the tenth knock Nischan scored his first farm-to-table acquisition: a hearty bounty of asparagus that had migrated from a since-neglected crop.

“The whole experience made me angry. Farming the way my grandfather did it was dying,” he says. “I was so frustrated. At first, most of my career was focused on figuring out a way to fix this.”

When Nischan’s son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes some years later, he realized that access to good food—or, rather, the lack of it—was not just an issue of taste but a vital factor affecting the health of the country. “I learned that the majority of people who suffer from Type II diabetes are at an income level that disallows them from making the food choices they need to stay healthy. Food was the barrier,” he says. But farm-fresh produce was not easy for most Americans to come by, nor was it something all Americans could afford. “We chefs were patting ourselves on the back, but really we could only provide farm-to-table meals for $40 a plate. Millions of Americans’ health could be changed by the way they eat, but they did not have access to those fruits and vegetables.”

High-quality ingredients, Nischan realized, were intertwined with the fate of small farms and the health of all Americans. His advocacy kicked into high gear, now with a multidimensional platform, beginning, he says, with the 1997 opening of Heartbeat—a trailblazing “restaurant of wellbeing”—in New York. “Heartbeat was my first response to what I believed in: not just the local, organic, and sustainable but also the human health thing. We didn’t use processed foods or white flour,” he says. “I just figured that the best thing I could do as a human, but also as a business person, was to spend my money where I wanted my food to come from and to get as many other people who were in my position to do that as well.”

The attention he received from the press for the success of Heartbeat helped Nischan develop his voice as a public figure. He joined Chef’s Collaborative and the advisory council of the Harvard School of Public Health. With Gus Schumacher, former USDA Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Nischan began doing “hobby nonprofit projects,” like coordinating an initiative to help connect restaurants with refugee farmers who were growing unique crops from their homelands. “The more I evolved, the more I learned that the policies were the real barriers and we had to figure out ways to get at that,” Nischan says.

In 2006 Nischan partnered with actor Paul Newman to open the Dressing Room, an illustrious, sustainably minded restaurant in Connecticut, where he was allowed space away from the kitchen, he says, to “spread my wings as an advocate and see how far I could take that.”

Very far, it turned out. During the conceptualization of the Dressing Room, Nischan helped establish a farmers’ market in the parking lot of the yet-to-open restaurant in the town of Westport, “a premium community where farmers could get premium prices,” says Nischan. “In exchange, we asked them to go into poorer communities and sell their produce at lower prices so lower-income families could have access to them.”

This achievement was just the beginning, and in 2007 Nischan and Schumacher founded Wholesome Wave. Since then Wholesome Wave has created a partner network of nearly 400 farmers’ markets in 28 states that help thousands of vulnerable families eat healthier while providing additional income for over 3,500 farmers. “Michel’s passion, drive, and dedication to ensure access for all families to local, healthy fresh fruits and vegetables is extraordinary,” says Schumacher. Last year, Nischan left kitchen life to serve full-time as the organization’s president and CEO.

In addition to the establishment and growth of farmers’ markets, Wholesome Wave has also helped promote a Double Value Coupon Program, through which food stamps are worth twice their value when used at farmers’ markets, and a prescription program that allows doctors to prescribe “health bucks” for farm-fresh produce to patients who suffer from diet-related diseases like diabetes and obesity.

Nischan also co-founded the Chef Action Network (CAN), to help other chefs become more engaged in food sustainability. “He’s a mentor to so many of us who want to make a difference in the national and global food community,” says CAN board member and chef Maria Hines. “To be able to take the leap out of the kitchen and into the food politics and non-profit arena shows tremendous versatility, as well as meaningful dedication.”

Nischan is invigorated by the cause. “I feel like I’m 30 years old again in the trenches, pushing buttons, turning over stones,” says Nischan. “It fills that hole in my soul of needing to touch people through food.”

The James Beard Awards would not be possible without the support of these generous sponsors:

Presenting Sponsor Lexus

In-Association Sponsors HMSHost * The Illinois Office of Tourism * Mariano's

The James Beard Foundation gratefully acknowledges the generous support of:

The Chicago Department of Aviation * Choose Chicago * The Illinois Restaurant Association

Emily Carrus is a freelance writer and editor covering topics on food and travel. She is based in New York City.