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Hesterman: Now's the Time for Fresh, Local, Fair Food

Author says conscious consumers must become engaged citizens

October 7, 2011 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  National food expert and author Oran Hesterman said that it takes political engagement to improve access to good food.

TRAVERSE CITY—National author and food activist Oran Hesterman delivered an inspiring message to a full house Thursday night about the growing movement to revamp the nation’s broken food system.

He urged the big audience to become activists and said that the “time for change is now.”

Mr. Hesterman, who penned the new book Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All—and has spent much of his life advocating for universal access to healthy, affordable, locally-grown foods—encouraged the 500-plus people at Traverse City’s State Theatre to seek solutions or, as he termed it, become “solutionaries.”

He repeatedly reminded the audience that they must be willing to engage the political structure in order to succeed.

The longtime local-food advocate encouraged attendees to join a movement he says is now gaining unprecedented momentum across the country. He said the movement is beginning to make profound changes to the existing food system, which pushes high-fat, less nutritious, processed products that burdens society with diet-related illnesses and overwhelming healthcare costs.

“We are not here tonight to celebrate the publication of a book,” Mr. Hesterman said. “We are here to celebrate the maturity of a movement. It’s a movement whose time has come.

“When you have no access to healthy, fresh foods, you are forced to choose foods that are less healthy for you,” he said. “And this is not just an issue in urban areas, like Detroit. This is an issue that runs across our state, rural and urban, northern and downstate.”

Mr. Hesterman made his remarks at a free event entitled “Fair Food: A Recipe for Change,” sponsored by the Michigan Land Use Institute.

In one sense, his presentation was a homecoming: As a longtime grant officer for the Kellogg Foundation, he directed crucial, major financial support to MLUI in the early 1990s, when the non-profit was launching its own program for developing a local food and farm economy in northwest Lower Michigan.

Dr. Hesterman is president and CEO of Fair Food Network, a non-profit organization working on similar goals. It focuses strongly on sustainability, equity, and food-related health issues, especially in underserved communities. A national leader in sustainable agriculture and food systems, he and his organization are the driving forces behind the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows low-income families to double the amount of electronic food stamp money they can spend at participating farmers markets.

MLUI and its partners in the Food and Farming Network are currently implementing a local version of the Double Up program, assisted by the Hesterman non-profit. Mr. Hesterman noted that the program is making significant progress in communities where it is in effect.

“As of last weekend, it has put more than $1 million in the pockets of Michigan farmers,” he said. “Over 30,000 people have participated since June 1, and more than 10,000 of those people were going to the farmers market for the very first time. We have an opportunity with Double Up Food Bucks to create a completely new set of customers for locally grown produce.

“It helps the farmers, and it helps the families,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

In his half-hour talk, Dr. Hesterman pointed to the nation’s soaring obesity, diabetes and poverty rates as reasons why the eat-local, healthy foods movement is gaining so much traction in so many parts of the country.

“It seems to be the movement of our time,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I’m finding young people on fire about this issue.”

Mr. Hesterman hammered away at his message that everyone must become a solutionist. His suggestions included contacting Michigan’s federal legislators—particularly Senator Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the committee working on the next edition of the massive, five-year federal Farm Bill.

He said that Senator Stabenow clearly understands the power and importance of the local food movement and that she wants to make the farm bill far friendlier to local food and farmers. Those policies range from allowing smaller farms access to crop insurance to helping schools revamp their cafeterias so they can serve fresh, rather than pre-processed food.

But, he said, it’s crucial that the senator—as well as local Congressman Dave Camp— see strong support for these goals from their constituents. That pressure is needed he said, to help them stand up to the tremendous lobbying pressure from some agribusiness interests that are only interested in gaining large subsidies for commodity crops, some of which fuel the heavy use of often harmful processed food.

“If we are going to create a healthy and sustainable food system for all, we have to go beyond growing gardens,” he said. “We have to make a shift from conscious consumers to engaged citizens, and we have to have policy so that our farmers can save our precious soil and reduce the toxic chemical loads on our environment.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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