Creating a Fair Food System: Thoughts about Oran Hesterman’s book FAIR FOOD

August 20, 2012
Source: Edible Michiana
Author: Paula Bartholome

At a recent food conference, I saw a video of a Chicago teenager taking his first-ever bite of a fresh apple. The same food system that brings me apples in Michiana year round never got one to him in that Chicago neighborhood. This is one small example of a “broken” food system.

In Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, Oran B. Hesterman, PhD, offers hope. He does this clearly, conversationally and with authority, drawing on his knowledge as a former professor of agronomy at Michigan State University and co-leader of the Integrated Farming Systems and Food and Society Programs for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation that has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to support the local food systems movement.

Fair Food Book Cover

He starts by describing what he means by a broken food system, points out what a working fair food system would look like and calls us to be food activists, providing ideas on how to do this in our kitchens, in communities and in governmental spheres to alter the policies and practices that keep us where we are.

All well and good, and perhaps some of it familiar to readers. So what makes this book different? More useful and actionable?

For me it is because Hesterman underpins everything with systems thinking—the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. Our food system is comprised of everything involved in feeding us from farm to table to trash, and it operates within and is influenced by social, political, economic and environmental contexts. There are no simple answers. For example, my eating locally may be good for me, good for farmers and good for the carbon footprint, but he points out that such things alone will not impact that teenager’s world.

Those attempting to change the food system need to have a clear-eyed understanding of it. This book is a primer and it introduces activists to each other to spark more creative, bottom-up approaches. Rather than sequentially addressing the laundry list of problems he identifies, Hesterman calls us to address things holisti- cally, considering all the pieces of the problem, and to do so from a “people first” perspective. To him this means that initiatives to achieve a fair food system need to be viewed through three lenses simultaneously:

Equity: everyone must have access to healthy, safe, fresh food.

Diversity: not only in what is grown and how, but also diversity in economic and ownership structures and who is involved in food system.

Ecological integrity: stopping practices that sacrifice natural resources now and make it less likely future generations will be able to feed themselves.

Hesterman emphasizes the importance of individuals and groups engaging at the local level by such things as buying from farmers markets on up to the federal level by engaging in how the Farm Bill is crafted. Everyone has to eat and has a stake the food system. Yet as a passionate realist, he also acknowledges that not everything about the current system can, or should, change and that big isn’t automatically bad.

He gives an example of Costco’s multi-year, quiet efforts to work with its green bean suppliers in Guatemala. Although not a small local business, Costco’s efforts to create a values-based supply chain incorporating concepts viewed through his three lenses resulted in farmers not only making more money, caring better for their land and providing a quality product, but the company built long-term relationships that were mutually beneficial up and down its supply chain including establishing a foundation in the mountains of Guatemala to provide previously unavailable health care services to farmers. And now Costco is moving on to do the same supply-chain analysis with other products. He compares this to organizations that trumpet their “greenness” and “localness” as marketing tools when they may be truly much less helpful than they sound.

This topic could have left me feeling overwhelmed and helpless. The challenges are real and they are huge. The time to deal with them is shrinking and the cost of not acting effectively is growing. It is a difficult task, yet Hesterman gave me hope, focus and energy to continue to eat local and do more.

Originally posted at Edible Michiana.

Paula Bartholome is a regular contributor to Edible Michiana, and has written about 21st -century agriculture in Southwest Michigan for Sim- pleGoodandTasty.com. Her blog-garden—table.blogspot.com—looks at living simply, eating well, and walking softly on the earth. She gardens, sells a bit of what she raises and cans more than she can eat in her home kitchen in New Buffalo, MI.