Across the country, many low-income urban and rural communities live without access to the healthy foods that families need to thrive. These areas where residents face economic and social barriers to affordable, fresh, whole foods are known as “food desserts.” At the same time, small farmers are struggling to make ends meet. Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, is seeking to nourish neighborhoods and support family farms by directly connecting consumers to fresh foods.
The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation had the opportunity to talk with Wholesome Wave. The organization is built on a series of local partnerships and provides solutions that address the nutritional needs of families and build local markets. The staff works with farmers markets and organizations to connect a broad base of consumers to farmers. This three year old organization tells a story of two unlikely partners joining to create a scalable model that addresses the specific needs of people in communities across the country.
In 2008, Michel Nischan, a sustainable food chef, and Gus Schumacher, a former Under Secretary of the USDA, joined to found Wholesome Wave. A professional chef and restaurateur, Nischan adapted his passion for regional cuisine to meet the strict dietary needs of his young sons who had been diagnosed with diabetes. He recognized that the difficulty of achieving a healthy diet for his sons must be amplified for someone without the same elevated access to nutritious foods.
Schumacher’s activism around food access began when he was delivering boxes of pears from his family farm. During the trip, one box fell off the truck. When Schumacher and his brother returned to pick up the fallen fruit, a woman and two young sons were picking the bruised pears out of the gutter. When Schumacher asked why she would be collecting this unwanted fruit, the mother explained that her food stamps weren’t enough to buy the fruits and vegetables her family needed.
The Nischan-Schumacher collaboration was the first of many partnerships that support Wholesome Wave. The organization works with third-party funders to double the purchasing power of SNAP dollars (formerly known as food stamps) when used to buy fresh food at farmers markets. This partnership incentivizes food assistance recipients to choose healthy options without any extra cost. Another project is to develop public-private partnerships with businesses, social services, and public spaces to create Healthy Food Hubs. These are neighborhoods that provide both access to food and information about improving healthy habits.
Since its start in 2008, Wholesome Wave has expanded its programming and reach. The organization has scaled its services from 12 markets in 4 states to over 160 markets in 20 states this year. We applaud Wholesome Wave for the inspiring work they do to serve low-income families and local farmers.
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Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation