Fair Food Network: Building a healthier food system (and strawberry rhubarb pie, too)

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Oran Hesterman is my new hero.

Hesterman, president and CEO of Fair Food Network wants to fix our broken food system, and his organization is achieving remarkable success.

A national nonprofit based in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Fair Food Network recently received a grant of more than $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The money will be matched with private funds to provide $10.4 million to expand the Fair Food Network’s signature program, Double-Up Food Bucks. More about that in a minute.

Hesterman, 63, had an organic sprout farm in his younger days, then got a doctorate in soil agronomy, taught at Michigan State University and worked on food policy issues at the Kellogg Foundation before starting the Fair Food Network in 2009.

A broken system

In his book, Fair Food (Public Affairs, 2011), Hesterman notes that our food system developed to provide the country with abundant food at low cost. That’s undeniably good. But along the way, the system developed some unintended consequences, which are just as undeniably not good. These include:

  • Declining food quality: who can deny that a garden-grown tomato beats one you buy in the supermarket?
  • Compromised food safety: How often do we hear about food recalls on the nightly news?
  • Animal welfare concerns: Factory-farmed chickens spend their whole lives in crates where they don’t have room to take a step or flap their wings.
  • Water pollution: Chemicals from synthetic fertilizers and herbicides are turning up in the water supply.
  • Loss of farmland: Estimates are that the U.S. is losing almost 3,000 acres a day of productive land.
  • Diet-related illness: Heavily processed foods lead to increases in obesity, diabetes, food allergies and other problems.
  • Worker exploitation: Many large farms and processing plants rely on migrant workers, who earn very little, are given substandard housing and often are exposed to toxic pesticides and insecticides.

Most of the readers of Read the Spirit are probably fortunate enough to have the means to overcome many of these problems. We live in houses with spacious yards where we can grow vegetables or participate in a community garden or CSA (community-supported agriculture). We have well-stocked supermarkets in our communities, and we can choose to shop Whole Foods or farmers’ markets and to buy organic produce and cage-free eggs. For us, it may seem that the food system is functioning just fine.

Low-income city residents, however, face enormous challenges in overcoming the broken food system. Even if they could afford to eat healthier, they often don’t have access to healthy foods. There are few, if any supermarkets near them, and many rely on corner convenience stores for most of their food.

Double-Up Food Bucks: a win-win-win

These are the people Hesterman set out to help with Double-Up Food Bucks.

The program enables families on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), generally known as “food stamps,” to double their purchasing power for fresh produce.

The program started at a handful of farmers’ markets in the Detroit area in the fall of 2009 and has spread to 150 markets across the state. Hesterman recently piloted it in four southeast Michigan grocery stores and hopes to get it into more stores soon.

Here’s how it works:

At the market, SNAP card holders can redeem up to $20 from their SNAP cards for gold tokens to spend on produce. When they do, they get an equal amount in silver tokens, which can be exchanged for Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.

Hesterman says the program is a win-win-win.

“The low-income families bring home healthier food. They put more dollars into the pockets of farmers, especially local farmers. And they keep those dollars in the community,” he said.

In less than six years the program has helped more than 300,000 low-income families and more than 1,000 Michigan farmers.

Fair Food Network has or is developing programs in New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah. Including two employees hired recently, the organization has a staff of 15. “We’re small but mighty,” said Hesterman.

This is important stuff. Read Hesterman’s book, which also offers suggestions about steps you can take personally to help fix the system (buy local!) and ways you can help change our food institutions and shift public policy in the right direction.

If you don’t have the time to get deeply involved, you can send the Fair Food Network a donation – their address is 205 E. Washington St., Suite B, Ann Arbor, MI 48104 – and know that you’ve supported something really worthwhile.

Here’s a recipe for a strawberry rhubarb pie that makes good use of fresh produce. Both fruits are plentiful right now. The recipe comes from Linda Hundt’s wonderful Sweetie-licious Pies.


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