Oran Hesterman pushing for a fairer food system

Oran Hesterman wants your outrage. He wants you to read his new book, get mad as hell, and actually do something about it.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., and a longtime crusader for fresh food, Hesterman was with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for 15 years, handling the group's $200 million effort to establish a more just and sustainable food system.

Oran Hesterman says that "our food system is broken," and that lobbying for public-policy changes is part of the answer.

Later, he started Fair Food Network, an Ann Arbor, Mich., nonprofit that practices what he has always preached.

And now he is the author of Fair Food: Growing A Healthy, Sustainable Food System For All (Public Affairs Books, 2011), available in bookstores and as an e-book at publicaffairsbooks.com.

The words fair and food show up all over the place, so it is worth noting that Hesterman's group has similar values but is unrelated to our own Fair Food Philly, which operates a farm stand in the Reading Terminal; runs farm tours; publishes a local food guide; and helps farmers sell to local institutions such as hospitals, school districts, and elder-care communities.

Hesterman was, however, president and chief executive of the now-defunct Fair Food Foundation. He established the foundation in Ann Arbor in 2007 with the goal of awarding grants to nonprofits. But he was forced to shut it down a year later when it became clear his investment manager, Bernard L. Madoff, was running a Ponzi scheme. Clearly, Hesterman was not alone in falling prey to Madoff. But he has moved on.

On Tuesday, Hesterman spoke at the Reading Terminal Market to representatives of local agencies that do the kind of food-justice work he values - promoting access to fresh, affordable, locally grown produce at farmers' markets, in schools, and on the job, especially for underserved communities.

"We think of health care as a system, but we need to think of food as a system too," he says to all who will listen.

"And our food system is broken."

A real fix will require changes in the way we individually think and act. Hesterman wants us to stop being just concerned consumers and become engaged citizens working to change policies. He devotes half his book to outlining that change.

"We have to move beyond the belief that we can individually change the system just by changing what we put into and take out of our own refrigerators."

"That would be like thinking we can change the health-care system by picking a different doctor."

Hesterman says we have to lobby for public-policy changes to fix the way animals and vegetables are grown, harvested, and brought to the table in order to save our soil, our water, our air, and our health.

Along the way, Hesterman doesn't get hung up on buying organically grown produce.

"Organic is a USDA label certifying that certain substances were not used and certain growing practices were used. But certification is expensive and it doesn't tell us where the food came from or how far it traveled. And it doesn't speak to the working conditions of the farm laborers."

Bottom line: Know your farmer.

Hesterman is not in favor of taxing sugary drinks and other bad-for-you foods. Monetary incentives to buy fresh produce work better, he says, pointing to the Food Trust's Philly Food Bucks and the Fair Food Farmstand's Double Dollars as examples of successful incentive programs.

"Research at the USDA shows incentives work to change behavior better than disincentives or penalties or education alone, Hesterman says. "Remember cash for clunkers? Worked like a charm. "

Besides, he's a political realist.

"While we know the negative effects of sugary drinks, the political reality of getting such a tax passed is difficult. We need to find solutions that will gain political support."


Activists from Fair Farms Philly are meeting at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Walnut Street West Public Library, 201 S. 40th St. Details are available at 484-558-0385or eheffling@fwwlocal.org.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com., or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.