What if you couldn't afford fresh fruits and vegetables? Even though you know they're essential for good health, common sense dictates that the little money you have go toward the cheapest possible calories. Problem is, those foods tend to be highly processed, low in nutrition and loaded with salt, sugar and unhealthy fats that can lead to chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as costly treatments to manage them.
Related: 2018 EatingWell American Food Heroes
That injustice is what Michel Nischan took on when he founded Wholesome Wave, inspired by his own son's diabetes diagnosis and the eye-opening reality of how intertwined diet and disease really are. The result is an innovative produce prescription program, called FVRx (Fruit and Vegetable Rx), that's rewriting the script on access to good food. The concept is simple: A patient sees her health care provider, who literally hands her a prescription for fresh produce that she can redeem ($1 a day per household member) for, say, strawberries or zucchini at any participating farmers' market, grocery store or local Target. "When your doctor says you should eat more fruits and vegetables, and here's a prescription that you can exchange for free produce—everybody understands that concept," says Nischan. "That's one of the reasons why it's so successful with consumers. The power of that advice is massive." It also has a massive potential to cut down on the estimated $1 trillion our country spends every year on diet-related diseases.
More than half a million people annually use FVRx, and the program has gotten remarkable results: the majority of participants report eating more fruits and vegetables, nearly half have decreased their BMIs, and many saw other health benefits, too—like managing their blood sugar levels, or being able to go off their medication. What solidified Nischan's place on our list this year: the food-as-medicine program is poised to expand dramatically. He recently worked with members of Congress on a bipartisan bill that includes a measure to provide produce prescriptions—$10 million worth, for the initial pilot program—to patients in low-income areas across the country. "Just putting a grocery store in a 'food desert' doesn't cause people in poor communities to make healthier food choices," says Nischan. "It's kind of like putting a Mercedes-Benz dealership in a low-income area of rural Alabama and being stunned when you don't sell a car. The main barrier is lack of affordability. Instead of waiting for people to get sick, we can give them the fruits and vegetables they need to avoid disease in the first place."
Michel's food heroes: José Andrés (naturally) and his mom (aww!).
Last thing he cooked: "Spatchcocked lemon chicken with roasted broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and Brussels sprouts."
Best advice for home cooks: "Sharpen your knives! The sharper your knives are, the fewer accidents you'll have and the less food you'll waste. Every time you cut vegetables with a dull knife—like julienning a bunch of peppers to have around for snacks—you bruise them and they get slimy within a day or two."