Oran Hesterman has spent his career inventing and testing systems that create ecologically and economically sustainable ways to provide healthy food to all. He is the founder and CEO of Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit dedicated to growing the good for a more just and sustainable food system. Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program doubles the value of federal nutrition benefits (SNAP or food stamps) spent at participating markets and grocery stores, helping people bring home more healthy fruits and vegetables while supporting local farmers.
His renowned book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, shares an inspiring and practical vision for changing not only what we eat, but how food is grown, packaged, delivered, marketed, and sold. He introduces people and organizations across the country who are already doing this work in a number of creative ways, and provides a wealth of practical information for readers who want to get more involved.
Oran is a personal hero of mine, and I could not be more honored to welcome him as a keynote speaker for our Farms, Food & Health Conference this fall in Traverse City. Enjoy this Q&A with him below, and check out the entire conference agenda (and register to attend!) at FarmsFoodHealth.org.
What does a “healthy, sustainable food system for all” look like? Why don’t we currently have one?
In our current food system in the U.S., we emphasize efficiency and specialization and high yields and processed and convenience. Those qualities have value or we wouldn’t have the system we have now. But a system that is sustainable and for all needs to embody other principles. Including principles like diversity, equity, economic viability, ecological integrity. When I wrote my book Fair Food, I organized my writing around those kinds of principles, principles that include a system that works long term and for more people. Our mission is to create community health and wealth, generate financial and social good in communities, and achieve greater access to healthy foods, while also supporting farmers and creating economic opportunity in communities.
Since you published your book, Fair Food, eight years ago, what has changed in the world of food equity? Is it better? Worse? Status quo?
By no means can we claim victory in creating a sustainable food system for all. But I am very optimistic. I see many solutions happening. What’s taking hold are solutions that don’t try to solve just one single problem. They try to address a number of issues at the same time so they can bring multiple stakeholders together. Take the 10 Cents a Meal program, pioneered at Groundwork. That brought many stakeholders together to provide fresh, healthy food for kids in school and to support local farmers at the same time. It was a win-win approach.
I think about Double Up Food Bucks, a healthy-food incentive program. That is also a solution that creates benefits for multiple stakeholders at the same time. It provides healthy food for low-income families while supporting local farmers, keeping those dollars in the local economy, and creating jobs and economic opportunity.
I also find optimism in what is happening at food hubs around the country—Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta, New York, Chicago and more—where products from local small-scale farms are aggregated and distributed for retail and to school cafeterias, and creating greater access to locally grown healthy food, while supporting local farms. The principle is to find solutions that address multiple issues at the same time. If you focus on solving a single problem, you can create other problems that you weren’t thinking about.
Tell us what Double Up Food bucks means to you. Give us a sense of what it has accomplished.
I am completely blown away by how successful this has become in the last decade. We started with a small pilot at Detroit’s Eastern Market and a few other neighborhood markets in 2009. We wanted to see if we could incentivize low income people to bring SNAP dollars to purchase locally grown produce at the farmers market. I could never have imagined the growth of the program. It’s now in 25 states outside Michigan and at 250 locations in Michigan. It’s also now in grocery store settings. There has been $25 million-worth and 15 million pounds of healthy, locally grown food sold through Double Up nationwide since 2009.
These kinds of things take partnerships with markets, nonprofits, and government agencies. I think about the policy work that has come alongside of Double Up. Largely due to the great work of our Senator Stabenow, who saw this working in Michigan and laid the foundation to put it in the farm bill and expand it nationwide. She’s helped create the bipartisan support that made it a part of permanent law in the farm bill.
Can you recall a moment when something you were watching happen really made you realize this dream of yours was real?
We have been doing this thing each fall with the United Way of Southeast Michigan and the Detroit Lions football team. Players would come and interact with the kids—jump rope, play four-square, whatever. And one day Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were there. And we talk to the kids about Double Up Food Bucks and what that all means. Then we give tokens to the kids and gave them a farmers market bag. I was trailing along behind Calvin Johnson, one of the greatest wide receivers ever in the game, and he had four youngsters with him in the market. And they went up to a vendor, and one of the boys asked, “Are those tomatoes grown in Michigan?” In that case, the tomatoes came from Canada. And the boy said, “Well, I can’t get that because I need a tomato grown in Michigan.” When I saw that I swelled with pride because this program was teaching a generation of kids in Detroit about all the great produce being grown here in Michigan.
People don’t think of Michigan as a leading agriculture state, why have you chosen to do your work in Michigan?
People don’t think of Michigan as a big ag state, but that’s just because they have not experienced what we have to offer. No state besides California grows a greater diversity of crops. It’s one of the top industries of our state. When I was finishing grad work in agronomy and plant genetics, and I had an offer to start my career on the faculty of Michigan State University, I jumped at that opportunity. The more crops and livestock you have on a farm, the more chance you have for a resilient farm—both ecologically and economically. I saw a great opportunity to test my ideas on the ground with farmers around the state, doing the research at Michigan State. And developing programs that can support Michigan agriculture, programs like Double Up Food Bucks.
Also, Michigan is a great place for food entrepreneurship. It’s a state that still has a really entrepreneurial spirit. There are great food and beverage entrepreneurs developing businesses all over the state. These are people providing great locally produced goods and jobs for families. They are spurring economic development, and they are rooted in our communities. They are not parachuting in from the outside.
In the broader food industry, is Michigan viewed the way you view it?
In this arena of local food systems, Michigan is seen at the top of the heap. It has to do with the great institutions we have, like Michgan State University and MSU Extension, and the support we get from Michigan Department of Agriculture. There’s also a strong philanthropic tradition in Michigan, with many foundations, both large and small, and we have great nonprofits, like Fair Food Network and Groundwork, and Michigan Farmers Market Association, which is seen as the premier statewide farmers market association in the country.
When it comes to the future of food safety-net programs, what are you most optimistic about, and what are you most concerned about?
I’d say I’m very optimistic about the future of incentive programs like Double Up Food Bucks. These will continue to expand and will have great impact. I’m optimistic that we will help more people in communities that need healthy food, and we will help farmers at the same time. But programs like Double Up need a strong SNAP program. We need to do everything we can to maintain eligibility for the program and to make sure eligible people use the benefits that are there for them. So that is one challenge, keeping a strong food assistance program so we can build the incentive program on top of that.
Finding innovative solutions is definitely heading in the right direction. There are small footprint grocery stores starting to appear in communities that have not had access to retail grocery. And the grocery store industry is shifting very quickly. Some in the industry feel the future will be small footprint grocery stores in communities, where they can serve their customer base, where they can be supported by their customer base. We are working with a group in Flint and another in Detroit on developing community-owned co-operative grocery stores. Where large chains have abandoned neighborhoods, we are seeing hopeful signs of a resurgence coming in a different way, one that is embedded in a belief that these communities need to control their own destiny when it comes to access to food, not rely on anybody else.
What about concerns? Any dark clouds on the horizon that you are keeping an eye on?
As for things I’m worried about, I’m the kind of person who has spent my time feeding solutions, feeding optimism. Whatever side you end up feeding—optimism or worry—that is the side that grows. I am aware that the idea that access to healthy food as a basic human right is not universally held. I just choose to act on my belief that it is a basic human right and do everything I can to create models that are based on that belief, but can be supported from a whole range of ideologies. The food insecurity nutrition incentive program at the federal level is supported across the aisle. It’s supported across ideologies. It’s not something that’s being fought about between Democrats and Republicans. It’s a great example of an idea that works. It’s an idea that benefits multiple stakeholders, something that can gain the attention and support of people from many different perspectives and ideologies. If we can focus on those kinds of solutions, we have a much more optimistic future scenario.