Nischan dishes out organic advice

Top chef says support local farmers and avoid ‘food deserts’

By on February 23, 2011

Similar to Spike Lee’s message a week earlier, chef and food policy activist Michel Nischan told students not to focus their careers on money.

In his keynote address for the 2010 Center for Excellence lecture last Wednesday, Nischan urged students to live a healthier lifestyle by eating locally-grown fresh food, and to spend money supporting their local farmers.

“When you leave school, whatever your discipline is going to be, reserve some of your success for its impact it can have on the community,” Nischan said. “Please don’t make it all about the money.”

Nischan’s family used to own a farm, but it was shut down when he was young due to low earnings. Since then, he has spent his life supporting local farmers and encouraging people to eat healthier.

“When I saw that the world was not the way it should be based on how I was raised, I just could not accept the way it was,” Nischan said.

This is progress ... but organic, local and sustainability have become powerful words. Michel Nischan

Thirteen years ago Nischan said he was “clinically depressed” over his discovery that some people, even his family members, didn’t want to eat organic foods. After years of trying to understand why, he found they just couldn’t afford it. As a result, Nischan created “Wholesome Wave,” an organization dedicated to helping provide access to “healthy, fresh, and affordable locally grown food for the well-being of all,” according to its website.

“Everybody–my bosses and my peers–thought I was very, very weird,” Nischan said. “Now that it is kind of cool to be sustainable, the same people who thought of me as weird, think of me as cool. This is progress – not that I’ve become cool – but organic, local and sustainability have become powerful words.”

Sustainability, the ability for people to have reliable and healthy food sources, was the main topic of the lecture, and the university’s theme for this school year. The University Themes Committee co-sponsored the event with the Center for Excellence.

“The most important thing is that he seemed engaging to the students, and I think he brought some really important information to the forefront that not all the students or faculty or staff knew about, like food deserts,” said Matthew O’Connor, dean of finance and co-chair of the University Themes committee.

Food deserts are areas where fresh, affordable food is hard to find, Nischan explained.

“Many people not having access to fruits and vegetables or a farmers market was a very important point that we need to pay attention to so people can be healthier in this country,” said David Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute.

Some students got the message, but not everyone was willing to go the extra mile to eat healthy.

“It’s tough to find them, but if there were farmers markets around here, now I’d definitely go to them,” junior Jacob Raphaelson said.

Nischan is the author of various cookbooks, including “Sustainably Delicious: Making the World a Better Place, One Recipe at a Time.” He owns The Dressing Room, a restaurant that cooks primarily locally-grown food, in Westport, Conn. Nischan turned down a multi-million dollar deal to host a show on The Food Network, based on his organic principles, he said.

“I couldn’t do that,” Nischan said. “There’s just no way I could have product placement for the things that were the very things that stopped me from being a farmer in Missouri right now.”

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