Food Justice interview: Oran Hesterman of Fair Food Network

September 23, 2015
Source: Repair the World
Author: Leah Koenig

This fall, Repair the World is building a movement to Inspire Service, focusing on the critical issue of food justice in conjunction with Hunger Action Month.
 
Meanwhile, we’re spotlighting the work of awesome food justice-minded companies and organizations around the world. This week: Fair Food Network: an organization dedicated to building a more just and sustainable food system. We spoke with President and CEO, Oran Hesterman, not making sacrifices or compromises when it comes to helping food be sustainable and just for all.
 
Why is the work you do around food so important right now?
There are times when groups working on food issues seem to be camped out at one of two poles. On the one side are the epicureans or “foodies” who make the point that we need to pay the real cost for good food in order to support farmers. On the other side are the anti-hunger activists whose top priority is preserving calories for those most vulnerable. Make no mistake, the thinking behind both is commendable and necessary, but it should never be a question of whether we support hungry families or local farmers. We can and need to do both.
 
At Fair Food Network, we develop multi-win solutions that work across the food system to ensure that farmers earn a fair price for their products AND that families—especially those most underserved—have access to the most nutritious and delicious food possible.
 
 
Can you share a brief story that demonstrates Fair Food Network’s impact on food justice?
Our signature effort at Fair Food Network is a healthy food incentive program called Double Up Food Bucks. Double Up provides low-income Americans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamp) benefits with a one-to-one match to purchase healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables.
 
Let’s say you’re a Michigan family living in Detroit. For every dollar of SNAP benefits you spend at your local farmers market, you get an equal amount to purchase Michigan grown fruits and vegetables. This means you can bring home $40 of healthy food for just $20.
 
Since 2009, we’ve grown Double Up from a small pilot in five farmers markets in Detroit to a statewide success story in more than 150 sites, now also including at grocery stores in one of the first such pilots in the country. Today nearly 90% of Michigan shoppers live in a county where the program operates. Our strong track record in Michigan helped inspire the new $100 million Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants program in the 2014 Farm Bill. Because of matching fund requirements, with FINI there will be at least $200 million flowing to support programs such as Double Up Food Bucks across the county.
 
This March, Fair Food Network was honored to receive $5.1 million in FINI funding to expand Double Up Food Bucks in our home state of Michigan. The grant, the second largest in the first round of funding, will be matched with private funds for a total of nearly $10.4 million, which will allow us to grow the program at farmers markets, help markets adopt mobile technology and be open year-round, and increase program use in up to 50 grocery stores of all sizes.
 
In what ways do volunteers get involved with your work?
The success of Double Up Food Bucks is grounded in partnerships. We are currently growing our volunteer network and looking for help in bringing the program to life, particularly as it expands to more grocery stores. Volunteers are needed to greet shoppers and share how Double Up works at participating stores, give store tours or healthy food cooking demonstrations, connect with community partners, or help coordinate other volunteers.
 
What are the biggest challenges to your work?
There are many successful sustainable food models out there that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. One of the biggest challenges we – along with many other groups – face right now is how to shepherd such programs from models into the mainstream. As we have seen with healthy food incentives, policy can be a powerful vehicle to help spread and scale innovations. It is up to us to continue proving the concept and keeping our elected officials engaged in and informed of our work so they can be champions of this work.
 
And on the flip side, what have you found most inspiring?
Double Up and similar incentive programs can be game-changers. SNAP accounts for the largest government expenditure in our food and agriculture system. Programs like Double Up leverage those federal dollars to meet families’ immediate food needs with fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t stop there: if they maintain a connection to local agriculture, they can also support area farmers and keep money in the local economy, which in turn spurs economic activity and opportunity.
 
In this way, food stamps are not only a way to assist low-income families in the here and now, they are also a powerful tool for long-term healthcare savings and an engine for economic development and revitalization. Conventional wisdom says you need a carrot and a stick to change behavior. What we have shown with Double Up Food Bucks is that you just need a better tasting and more affordable carrot.
 
First posted at Repair the World on August 27, 2015.