INTERVIEW by CATHERINE LYONS | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of ORAN HESTERMAN
The way we interact with food shapes all parts of our lives — our health, our cultural experiences, our communities, our economies, and our social ideologies. And when there are cracks in the food system, not one of these spheres goes unaffected. The Fair Food Network, a Detroit-based organization, is at the very forefront of the fight for the accessibility of sustainable, healthy food products, particularly in communities that are currently under-served. We spoke with President and CEO, Oran Hesterman, who detailed the organization’s many initiatives to combat a very broken food system. The good news, as you’ll read, is that the effort has begun to pay off.
You run the Fair Food Network. How did you get involved in food deserts and fixing this problem?
At age 36, I found myself in the hospital with a huge flare up of Crohn’s disease. My digestive system stopped functioning. The doctors were pumping me full of prednisone and saying their only option would be surgery to remove my colon. The doctors told me that before deciding on surgery, they wanted me to eat a meal to see what happened, and in comes the dinner tray, on which is roast beef, a pile of mashed potatoes, and a big piece of cake. I said to myself, “This is not what I need to be eating.”
I called a friend and asked her if she could save my life by bringing me some brown rice, steamed greens, and tofu. I firmly believe that because of what I ate and how I continue to eat, I didn’t have to get surgery, and my colon is now healthy.
I’m fortunate that I knew what I needed to get healthy and how to get access to it. And then I thought about everyone who doesn’t. It shifted my professional perspective as well as my personal perspective. It added a deeper direction to my work around food systems and equity.
Back in 2008, when Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was discovered, it wiped out the funding for the Fair Food Foundation. Tell me about how the Fair Food Network came to be out of this unexpected turn of events. How difficult was it to start over, and why did you choose to do so?
I was working at the Kellogg Foundation and leading their work in sustainable farming. I was then asked to consider leaving Kellogg to start the Fair Food Foundation, which was a private foundation started and funded by private donors. After hiring staff and putting together our funding strategies, I learned the hard way that these donors had all their philanthropic dollars invested with Bernie Madoff.
The call from the donors came on my birthday, at six in the evening. When they told me, I thought, “Who’s Bernie?” That evening, instead of doing anything else, I started watching MSNBC to see what this was all about, and when I went to bed that night, I knew the project was done. I decided that two things would be my next calling, and those were to start the Fair Food Network and to write the book Fair Food.
Tell me about the book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All.
There is a need for a more national conversation about the solutions to a food system that is broken and not serving many of us. The problems and challenges have been well documented by writers, journalists, chefs, movie directors. But we are missing the next step, which is, “What do we do about it?”
I’ve been involved with many fair food “solutionaries” over my career. I wanted to lift up the solutions that are actually working, to lay out the framework of what a fair food system would be like — a system that would work for our environment, our community, our economy, and, most importantly, I wanted to answer the question, “What can I do?”
The book trailer for Fair Food
What are these solutions?
It’s really important for people to start where they are. Get engaged in the national Farm to School Network. About eight years ago, there were only four of these programs; now there are 10,000 across the country. If a young person is interested in getting involved in this work, they can work for FoodCorps. Instead of doing the Peace Corps and helping people with issues in other countries, you can join this program to work with food system organizations in low-income neighborhoods.
At FFN, we created a program called Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB): If you spend your food stamp dollars at participating farmers’ markets, we will double the amount you spend up to $20 per market visit. We are currently running this program in Michigan and starting to get inquiries about implementing it across the country.
We are also pairing the program in Michigan with policy discussions in DC. The 2012 Farm Bill as passed by the Senate Ag Committee includes $100 million to incentivize these types of programs. According to a poll conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we’ve learned that 80% of people who are participating in this program are eating more fruits and vegetables. Farmers say they are making more money because of this program. With the sheer amount of money being provided by the government in food assistance (more than $70 billion in 2012), it’s a huge opportunity to use that money wisely to get low-income families to eat healthier and support our local farmers.
The Double Up Food Bucks program promotes the use of food stamp dollars at local farmers’ markets
Fair Food Network is a national organization, but it seems to be particularly focused on Detroit. What is the situation in Detroit?
I really believe that the best work we can do as a non-profit is to demonstrate effective change on the ground in the community and then lift up what works through public policy.
There’s no more important place to demonstrate positive change than in the struggling post-industrial city of Detroit. It has so much potential right now as it is working to really reinvent itself, and part of that is to create a more local, sustainable food system. It is the single city with the most available land within the city limits. There is more active community gardening in Detroit than any other city in America.
If it can work in Detroit, it can work anywhere. Together, FFN and a whole network of organizations are demonstrating that it’s really possible to create shifts in the food system in the city that’s really the poster child for what’s wrong with post-industrial America.
What are some results that you’ve personally seen from the work your organization does? Do you have a particular story that stands out for you?
I’m just reviewing a paper I’m writing, and I’ve just re-read something Wendy K. Essenberg, a single mother on food stamps, sent — an unsolicited email that says thank you for the Double Up Food Bucks program:
“Thank you so much for [the Double Up Food Bucks] program. I am a newly single mom and have been struggling along since the divorce. I am working hard, have gone to school and am still looking for a job. I have had so much fun taking my girls to the [farmers’] market with me this summer to let them pick out fruits and veggies. I have been teaching them how to steam and sauté. I showed them how to make freezer jam. I taught them how to freeze fruits and veggies so that we can enjoy them in the winter. Because of the Double Up program I am able to give my girls some food now and put some in the freezer for this winter. That is something I would not have been able to do without this program.”
When all is said and done, I’m proud that 40,000 people used that program this year. Almost 12,000 of them were first timers at a farmers’ market. I’m proud that more than 40 funders and foundations are working with us. I’m proud that the Farm Bill is moving through Congress, but at the end of the day, it’s the emails from Wendy and others like her that make me get up and come to work.
There are a lot of issues to champion in the world today. Why do you think food equality and access is one that America needs to pay attention to?
What if we don’t [pay attention]? Our most basic relationship with the earth is with the food we eat. We are not separate from the earth’s ecosystem. Our flesh and blood is made out of the food it provides us. If we do not figure out a more sustainable food system for the future, as a species, we’re going to be in deep trouble.
The results will be that our healthcare costs start coming down dramatically, and we can balance a federal budget rather than build up huge future deficits because we’re healthy. Every time we create more local spending on locally-processed food, we are creating more local jobs. We can make positive changes in our society by shifting to a more sustainable and equitable food system.
A clichéd question, but where do you see Fair Food Network in five to ten years, and where do you see the United States in terms of this Fair Food movement?
Having followed this movement over my whole career and watched it over 40 years, I think back to 10 or 20 years ago, and it was a pretty lonely place. Now everywhere you look, you see coverage of food and agriculture and its impact on us, and I think this is going to keep building. We are going to see even more of a demand for local and sustainable food, fulfilled by a whole cadre of new farmers and young people who will create new restaurants and delivery programs for locally-grown food. We’re going to see an explosion in this field, and it’s going to be terrifically fun to watch.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
1. Go to our website at www.fairfoodnetwork.org and sign up to receive our updates on important policy initiatives, so that you can take an active part in having your voice heard along with many others.
2. If you work with an organization trying to make a positive difference toward a fair food future, sign up on the fair food list, also on our website.
3. Read my book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, to see how you can take action to make a difference in your home, community, and nation.
4. If you have connections to the donor/philanthropic community, urge them to support organizations working to create a fair food future.