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

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.


A Cherry Apple Pie for Presidents Day


I am a Scrooge when it comes to Presidents Day: Bah, humbug!

When I was in school we got two—count ‘em, two—days off in February, one for Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and the other for Washington’s on February 22. Their actual birthdays were the actual holidays.

Then in 1971, our federal government decreed that most federal holidays would be celebrated on a Monday. A three-day weekend was nice enough for those of us in school or working in traditional office jobs – but it kind of took the wind out of the birthdays of two of our greatest presidents. I think the holidays had more meaning when they were celebrated separately.

What a relief that they didn’t change the date of Independence Day. Imagine celebrating the Fourth of July on July 2 or July 6! (Want to learn more? Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays column explores the strange history of Presidents Day.)

It’s still Washington’s Birthday

When I was doing research for this piece, I was astonished to learn that the official name of the holiday is still Washington’s Birthday. How would old George feel to know that his birthday is now always on a Monday? And how would old Abe feel knowing that he is officially ignored altogether?

I think Lincoln has always been my favorite president. He preserved the Union through a disastrous civil war. He was responsible for the passage of the crucial 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, even though it wasn’t ratified until after his death.

When I was younger I didn’t see nearly as much to admire in Washington. A great general, yes. Our first president? Big deal. Then in 1984 (was it really 30 years ago?) there was a wonderful TV mini-series about Washington starring Barry Bostwick. And I realized just how hard a task he faced as our first president.

George kept us together

We may have been “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as Lincoln would put it fourscore and seven years later. But in 1776, and even in 1789 when Washington was elected (by the Congress, not We the People), who knew what that meant? Some of the early Americans actually wanted to make Washington our king! Luckily he would have none of that! The new nation could have easily fallen apart in its early years; indeed there were a number of rebellions against the infant federal government. It was Washington’s leadership that kept us from foundering.

Plus I’ve had a soft spot in my heart ever since George Washington helped me win second place on Jeopardy! 10 years ago. (My one and only game was broadcast on April 2, 2004.)

I was getting creamed by the guy who won that game by a wide margin and who went on to win about eight more. And due to a couple of stupid mistakes, I was in third place going into Final Jeopardy, which was in the category George Washington. The “answer” was this: “In 1798, George wrote to John Greenwood, a man in this profession, ‘I am …ready to pay what ever you may charge me.’”

I was no expert on GW. But I did know that George was famous for his ill-fitting wooden false teeth. So I guessed, “What is a dentist?” I was right! And I was the only one of the three contestants who got it right, salvaging a little bit of the ego that had been bruised by how poorly I’d performed in the game and moving me ahead of the third person.

A pie for two presidents

I promised you another pie recipe this week from Sweetie-licious Pies by Michigan pie-meistress Linda Hundt. This cherry apple pie is appropriate for both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays because it’s an apple and cherry pie. Apparently Abraham Lincoln loved pies, especially apple. And of course we all know the myth about George Washington copping to chopping down his father’s cherry tree (first recorded in a book about Washington by Mason Locke Weems). What better excuse can there be to eat cherry pie every February?

Eat Pie, Love Life

Right after Christmas I read a wonderful story in the Detroit Free Press about a woman who loves to make pies.

Linda Hundt, a Michigan State grad, spent the 1990s and more working full-time as an aide to former Michigan governor John Engler. She liked her job–but her passion wasn’t in politics, it was in pies.

While still working for the governor, Linda found the time to bake 60 pies a week in her church’s kitchen. She sold them from a refurbished food case on the front porch of her farmhouse.

She finally left politics in 2002 and a few years later, with the help of a home equity loan, Linda opened the Sweetie-Licious Bakery Cafe, an almost-too-cute pink-drenched shop in DeWitt, a small mid-Michigan town. There’s another branch in Grand Rapids and one coming soon in the Detroit area.

A national pie champ

Over the years Linda managed to win 16 first-place ribbons and one Best of Show in the Crisco National Pie Baking Contest, a 100-Year Anniversary Innovation award from Crisco and the Food Network Pie Challenge. She’s been written up in dozens of local and national publications.

I smelled a good Feed the Spirit topic, but it got even better when I went to Linda’s website. There I learned that she had also published a cookbook called–surprise!–Sweetie-licious Pies: Eat Pie, Love Life. I had to have it. And I love it!

A Valentine of a book

I decided to write about Sweetie-Licious this week because Valentine’s Day is upon us. Linda’s book is like a hardback Valentine, all pink and frothy, full of super-saturated color photos and gushing with love. If the recipes don’t make you yearn to sink your teeth into one of those pies, Clarissa Westmeyer’s gorgous photos will.

My daughter took one look at the book and burst out laughing, saying it looks like something from the 1950s. It’s true: just look at this photo of Linda and her mom, Joan McComb, opposite the book’s foreward. In the book at least, Linda always wears shirtwaist dresses (usually pink or red) with poufy crinolines and a June Cleaver-style apron. But that’s part of the fun of the book.

In her introduction, Linda, 50, describes how she got her start in baking with a Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. It was her favorite Christmas gift when she was 6.

The Easy-Bake was destroyed in a house fire when Linda was a young adult. Years later, Linda’s husband bought her another one for Christmas. When she opened the package, she said, “all the joy and love I’d felt from cooking and baking throughout my life came rushing back. I realized that my mission in life, my dream of changing the world one pie at a time and loving people through my food, all started from that little oven.”

While in high school, Linda made her first pie, coconut cream, for her boyfriend, John Hundt, who is now her husband.

Recipes and values to live by

After telling her personal story, Linda launches into the recipes. First there are recipes for crusts and toppings. One surprising detail: Linda recommends freezing the pie crust before filling and baking it. Another surprise: Linda doesn’t make double-crust pies. Many of her recipes call for a crumb topping. Other pies are topped with caramel, whipped cream or meringue or simple garnishes.

Then come more than 50 recipes for pies, each with a beautiful photo, and each with a story – about a person who made that particular pie or a person who really loved it.

The recipes are divided into chapters – not divided by the type of pie but by values Linda holds dear, qualities like Character, Faith, Gratitude and Joy.

All about love

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll tell you what Linda has to say about Love, in her final chapter:

Finding love in all things in life is, I believe, truly life’s purpose. A heart bursting with love brings happiness to all who encounter it. Love fuels us, and when we find the “loveliness” in everyone, the world is simply sweeter. Hugs, deeds words, and kind gestures are all expressions of this most powerful virtue.

But baking a pie for someone may be the ultimate testament to love, as the love you bake in it will be crimped into every corner of the crust and suffused in every bite of filling!

So if you haven’t already bought that overpriced heart-shaped box of chocolates or ordered a dozen red roses, consider baking a pie for your sweetie this week. He or she will taste the love.

A true honey pie

I chose Linda’s West Virginia Honey Pie for this week’s recipe because the title is so appropriate for Valentine’s Day and because I’d never seen a honey pie before.

She created this recipe in memory of pleasant summer days spent with her grandparents at their farm in West Virginia. Her grandfather, a retired coal miner, enjoyed hunting, vegetable gardening and caring for bees.

Her grandmother would make pans of cornbread that Linda would drown with Grandpa’s golden wildflower honey. “My daddy always claimed that we all should work as hard as honeybees, as he too kept bees as a teenager during World War II,” Linda said.

(Come back next week for another Sweetie-Licious recipe in honor of President’s Day.)