Meatless Monday: Produce to the People

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michel Nischan is in turbo schmooze mode at an inner city farmers market. James Beard award-winning chef and CEO of the foundation Wholesome Wave, Nischan tells a local public school administrator who to contact regarding a federal grant, introduces another foundation chairman to an underserved resident who's using her food stamps for fresh produce. He shakes hands with the mayor, introduces a chef to a woman who's run an organic market. Turns out they've met. They're married. Nischan laughs, then grabs his cell and takes his bazillionth call, as upbeat and attentive as though he's been waiting for it all his life.

Watching him in action, you'd swear he's trying to wrest America's food system from the mega corps single-handedly. But Nischan knows he can't do it alone. That's why he's feverishly spinning a web of connections. He's got in his corner the likes of Wholesome Wave's executive VP, Gus Schumacher, a USDA undersecretary during the Clinton administration. Schumacher, policy wonk extraordinaire, has the federal bureaucracy angle down cold. Nischan, author of Sustainably Delicious, knows food and farming. He has a little glam factor going, too. He opened his upscale Westport restaurant Dressing Room with Paul Newman. Yes, that Paul Newman.

It's great, says Nischan, to serve fresh, sustainable produce to his restaurant patrons -- they love it. It's the rest of the population he worries about. "There's so many people who will never have access to that." That's why Nischan began Wholesome Wave in 2008, to bring farmers market fresh, sustainable food to the underserved.

Nischan is the son of farmers who lost their farm and their way of life thanks to the monster of agribusiness. They kept their passion and connection to food and farming, though, and passed it on to their four children. Nischan's mother "used to do stuff like take tomato seeds and a glass of water and pile of dirt and say, 'It's alive.' When you're eight, you giggle or think it's the silliest thing in the world." Then Nischan watched as the seeds grew. "How can there not be life in dirt?" he says.

Nischan's family was by no means wealthy, but their ability to farm and garden meant they always had fresh and abundant food. "Now that's not possible," says Nischan. "The people who aren't well off, the only food available to them is harmful to them," He means those living in so-called food deserts, where the neighborhood stores are liquor stores and convenience stores, nowhere selling anything fresh.

Wholesome Wave has sponsored over a hundred farmers markets in a dozen states including the newest, Roots in the City, in my hometown of Miami. Not only does it brings fresh produce to an underserved part of the city, it offers double value on food stamps. A dollar's worth of food stamps gets you two dollars' worth of fresh fruits and veggies.

"The farmers, get to keep all the money and the underserved community member gets to keep all the food. It's designed to drive policy change," says Nischan.

Roots in the City is certainly a game changer. I know of nowhere else in Miami where the mayor, local farmers, one the city's top chefs, Haitian refugees, tatted hipsters, inner city residents and guys in suits come together. Politically, Miami has always been divisive. But we all want and deserve fresh locally grown produce.

"Magic happens when you introduce farmers and consumers directly," says Nischan. A lot of hard work goes into making the magic happen, but he is, he admits, a workaholic. And he's madly motivated. As the son of displaced farmers and as the father of five children, including two who are diabetic, he understands growing fresh, sustainable food and making it available to everyone is pivotal, translating into "human health, societal health, ecological health and the health of the economy -- it's all equal." And it all depends on a healthy food system.

Wholesome Wave M'jadrah

Michel Nischan enjoys a good burger, but, he says, "I find myself enjoying simple meals like rice and beans more than I ever have before. The simplest meal can be delicious but the ingredients have power. Rice and beans constitute a complete protein, you don't need an animal in the mix." Amen.

There are versions of this mellow dish, m'jadrah -- lentils and rice -- all over the Middle East, including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. In all its incarnations, it is comfort in a bowl. Nice with fresh greens. Serve with a dollop of yogurt, a drizzle of tahini or a blast of hot sauce if desired.

1 cup brown lentils
1 cup brown rice
3 cups vegetable broth or water
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons cumin (divided use)
4 teaspoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
sea salt and parsley to taste
parsley and lemon wedges for garnish, if desired

Soak lentils and rice together in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain into a sieve or colander and rinse well.

In a large pot, combine water or broth, turmeric, 1 teaspoon cumin and the rice and lentils. Bring to a boil over high heat. Stir and reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes, until lentils and rice are tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat, season with sea salt and pepper.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add sliced onion and remaining teaspoon of cumin, plus salt and pepper to taste. Saute, stirring occasionally, until onions are brown and a little crispy at the edges. Serve atop the rice and lentils.

Serves 4.