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Author Oran Hesterman discusses global food production and how it could be mankind’s undoing.

Dr. Oran Hesterman may have the ultimate green thumb. The Ann Arbor agronomist has a backyard garden that’s the envy of his neighbors.

“Whatever he plants is four times larger than anyone else’s — it’s mysterious,” says his wife, Lucinda Kurtz. “His kale, collards and Swiss chard are giant. His tomatoes grow Jack and the Beanstalk-like. The garden feeds us all summer and into fall, and we have greens until Chanukah. We give food away to everyone on our street; it’s way too much for us.”

Seems fitting for the author of Fair Food: Growing A Healthy, Sustainable Food System For All (PublicAffairs), a book that offers a thorough examination of the world’s broken food system as well as a plan to fix it. A former university professor, Hesterman, 59, is founder, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network, which he describes as “a national nonprofit that works at the intersection of food systems, sustainability and social equity to guarantee access to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food, especially in underserved communities.”

Sustainability, or a variation of it, is of key importance to Hesterman, who is touring extensively with his book — he’ll travel in August to Davis, Calif., to speak at a food conference hosted by Hazon, a group founded to support the Jewish environmental movement in North America and Israel that stands at the forefront of a new Jewish Food Movement — and that is part of what makes Fair Food such a compulsive read.

Hesterman doesn’t just point out the problems with the current world food system, he points out in stark and blunt, yet realistic, terms what needs to be done to create a sustainable food system. Even Gov. Rick Snyder was inspired enough to say that “Oran Hesterman convincingly argues that reinventing our food system is crucial for improving the health of our cities and our economy — policymakers are wise to spend time considering the ideas he lays out in this book.”

Inspiration for the mission that has been such an important part of his life came from two places.

“One comes from very early in my life,” says Hesterman, who grew up at Temple Beth El in Berkeley, Calif., participating in North Pacific Coast Young Judaea. “I was 21 years old. I had just returned from a year in Israel [on Young Judaea Year Course], where I had been working on a kibbutz. I started university at the University of California-Santa Cruz, working on the student organic farm. It was the first one in the country. This was back in the early ’70s. I just got captivated by it and spent a couple of years full-time learning how to farm and learning how to grow food.

“The other inspiration that really deepened my experience and took it in a different direction was when I was 36 years old and I had been diagnosed with an illness,” Hesterman says. “I was in the hospital and my digestive system was nonfunctional. The doctor was telling me that surgery was an option. When I could finally eat a few days later, they gave me roast beef, mashed potatoes and a big piece of cake made out of white sugar and white flour. I knew that this was not the food I needed to get myself healthy.”

Today, Hesterman is a poster boy for his own solutions. Fit and trim, he exercises regularly, practices yoga and meditates each morning. He and Lucinda are members of Pardes Hannah, Ann Arbor’s Jewish Renewal community, which emphasizes Jewish mystical and meditative practices as well as environmentalism. At home, he’s the cook in the family — they have three grown children — and he uses produce from his garden, often making morning eggs with freshly cut kale and collard greens.

Yet he knows the problems in the food system intimately. In Fair Food, he points out that food quality is declining, food safety is compromised, the concerns over animal welfare, the issues of soil erosion and depletion, water pollution, loss of farmland, greenhouse gas production, problems with food access, diet-related illnesses including (though not restricted to) obesity, worker exploitation and the aging farmer population. You could be forgiven for thinking that he is a pessimist, but he’s not. He provides a very clear roadmap to make things better. He says stores like Whole Foods Market provide a better quality of food, and just shopping there is a good start.

Kate Klotz, corporate public-relations manager for Austin-based Whole Foods, feels the company echoes many of Hesterman’s concerns and helps to address them.

“We are the world’s leading grocery of natural and organic products,” Klotz said. “Everything we sell is free of anything artificial — colors, flavor, preservatives, trans fats — and we emphasize foods that are organic and/or local. We are experts at helping people with special dietary needs and at working with local producers at using more sustainable food-growing methods.”

GREEN DETROIT

Hesterman is a realist though, and he knows that not everybody can afford to shop at a specialty store. Fortunately, there are other answers.

“I think about a couple of things,” Hesterman says. “Detroit is known as the city with the most extensive urban gardening and small-scale farming in the country. Greening of Detroit is supporting more than 1,600 community gardens, backyard gardens and street gardens.

They are there ready to work with anybody who wants to put some sweat equity into growing their own food.

“Another thing is a program that we are helping to get implemented in Detroit and across Michigan called Double Up Food Bucks. With that, anybody who comes to a participating farmers market across the state of Michigan, including Detroit, with their Michigan Bridge Card, for every $20 they spend off of their food stamp card, they will get an additional $20 of spending power to spend on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. Spend $20 and you get $40 worth of produce. It’s a way for families on federal assistance to bring those dollars to a place where they can both get healthy food for their family and support the local food economy at the same time.”

The program operates in 46 Michigan markets, with support from private foundations and donors, with additional help from the Michigan Department of Human Services, USDA Rural Development and the Michigan Nutrition Network.

Amanda Segar, food assistance partnership coordinator at the Michigan Farmers Market Association, believes Double Up Food Bucks is a great step forward.

“First of all, there’s a huge myth that farmers markets are more expensive than grocery stores,” Segar says. “I don’t know where it came from, this belief that farmers markets are for elite clientele. They are very economical, especially when buying produce that is in season. They are competitively priced with grocery stores. That said, the Double Up Food Bucks program is a great initiative. It helps the public, and it helps the farmers markets. Everyone should have access to locally produced healthy food. But more than that, farmers markets promote community awareness. There are a lot of people who haven’t been able to incorporate fresh fruit and vegetables into their diet before because they don’t know how to prepare and store it. At the farmers market, they can actually talk to the growers. Who better to learn from?”

Everything Hesterman is proposing sounds fantastic, and it all makes sense. But how realistic is it to think that these changes are going to be made in a world where so much money is changing hands in a food system dominated by big business?

“I would turn that around,” Hesterman says. “How realistic is it to think that we can continue polluting our waterways, losing our precious topsoil, having diet-related illness and obesity spin way out of control, among others, and think that can sustain us in the future? We are living with a system that cannot sustain us into the future. I was in an audience listening to the executive vice president of the largest health insurance company in the U.S. a few months ago, and he said, ‘In our company, we’ve looked at the trends, done our numbers, done our research, and our research shows that by 2018 the cost of treating obesity in the U.S. will be $345 billion a year.’ We’ve simply got to find ways to feed ourselves more sustainably.”

Surprisingly, Hesterman has seen little in the way of direct criticism from big business and politicians who could stand to lose money if Hesterman has his way. But then, Hesterman isn’t against big agriculture.

“I’ve been in this field for a long, long time,” he says. “This is my first book, but I’ve spoken a lot, I’ve written a lot of articles, and I was a university professor [at Michigan State University] for a long time. I worked at the Kellogg Foundation [co-leading the Integrated Farming Systems and Food and Society Programs, during which time the foundation seeded the local food systems movement with more than $200 million].

“Not everybody agrees with me. There are some people who believe that the only way for us to sustain ourselves going forward is to intensify agriculture — to use more chemicals, more pesticides, genetically modified plants, and that’s the only way to do it. I simply do not agree. I see the symptoms of that system, the consequences, and they are getting worse and worse.

“I’m not against big agriculture. I’m an agronomist. I was trained in this as a scientist. I believe there’s a role for large-scale agriculture in feeding ourselves, absolutely. I just believe that we have reached a point where the pendulum has swung so far to the side of intensification, specialization, concentration, that we are in peril.”

In Fair Food, Hesterman details many small- and large-scale projects that are working to improve the food system around the United States. He hopes that, in 10 years, we’ll start seeing the fruit of that labor.

“I just think about the dozens, maybe hundreds, of small-scale projects happening around the country pointing the way to a food system that is more sustainable and more equitable,” he says. “My vision, my dream, is in 10 years’ time we would see those current systems, rather than only comprising about 2 percent of the current food system, we would have 10 or 20 percent. I believe if we put our minds to it, it’s possible. It’s happening all around us on a small scale, and these ideas can be scaled up.

“I really encourage people to think about both what they can do in their own kitchen to make a difference, but especially all the opportunity beyond their refrigerator and beyond their kitchen of how they can participate and change this, which is so important for our future,” Hesterman says. “The time is now. We’re at a moment right now where people can make a difference.”

Hesterman will speak at JCC Jewish book fairs in Ann Arbor and Metro Detroit in November. In Ann Arbor, his talk will include a “fair food” dinner.

— Keri Guten Cohen and Gail Zimmerman contributed reporting to this article.

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