Fair Food Network will use federal grant to grow its healthy food initiative.
Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network has received a $5.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand its Double-Up Food Bucks program, a statewide healthy food initiative that enables low-income families to stretch their food dollars by eating fresh food from farmers’ markets.
Oran Hesterman, president and CEO of Fair Food Network, said his organization will match the grant with private donations to provide a total of $10.4 million for Double-Up Food Bucks.
With the Double-Up Food Bucks program, families on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), generally known as “food stamps,” can receive an equal amount of support to purchase fresh, Michigan-grown produce.
At a market, a SNAP card holder will receive up to $20 worth of gold tokens to spend on produce and an equal amount in silver tokens, which can be exchanged for Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.
Hesterman, 63, of Ann Arbor, started the program six years ago at five farmers’ markets. It has since grown to 150 locations across Michigan.
He says the program is a win-win-win.
“The low-income families bring home healthier food. They put more dollars into the pockets of farmers, especially local ones. And they keep those dollars in the community.”
Since it started in 2009, the program has helped more than 300,000 low-income families and more than 1,000 Michigan farmers. Michigan is third in the nation (and first in the Midwest) in the number of SNAP participants who shop at farmers’ markets.
Hesterman is passionate about food justice, which he says comes from his Jewish roots and Jewish values.
He and his wife, Lucinda Kurtz, who have three adult children, are active members of Pardes Hannah, the Ann Arbor Jewish Renewal congregation. He is also active with the Washtenaw Jewish Alliance for Food, Land and Justice and a board member of Hazon, a multi-state organization dedicated to creating healthier, more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.
Double-Up Food Bucks is “a great opportunity to practice tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Hesterman said.
“The Jewish community can become leaders in this effort,” he said. “Improving nutrition for low-income families is a collective responsibility. We need to repair a system that has not been working, especially among the most vulnerable. This is a good opportunity to move the effort forward.”
Hesterman, who once worked as an organic farmer, has a doctorate in agronomy from the University of Minnesota. He taught crop and soil science and leadership development at Michigan State University for 10 years, then went to the Kellogg Foundation to support innovative food programs.
In 2008, he was tapped to run the nascent Fair Food Foundation, which planned to fund nonprofits working for food justice and sustainability. He had just hired two staff members when the foundation’s benefactors called him on Dec. 11 — his birthday — to tell him they’d lost all their philanthropic funds in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
“‘What’s in store for me next?’” Hesterman said he asked himself. “This is my work; I’m not going to let one crook derail my life’s purpose.”
The foundation’s landlord believed in Hesterman enough to let him remain in his downtown Ann Arbor office for 18 months without paying rent.
Hesterman reorganized into a new nonprofit, the Fair Food Network.
“The opportunity to do the work was still there,” he said, “but now I had to raise the money to do it.”
While going after those first grants, he wrote a book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All (Public Affairs Books), published in 2011. The New York Times described it as “an important, accessible book on a crucial subject.”
Early funders included the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, the Kresge Foundation and the New York-based Woodcock Foundation. By 2009, Hesterman had raised enough to start Double-Up Food Bucks. Now, more than 50 foundations support the effort, which has a budget of $4 million this year.
Fair Food Network has or is developing programs in New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah. Including two employees hired recently, the organization has a staff of 15.
“We’re small but mighty,” Hesterman said.Staff and funders appreciate his passion.
“Oran is truly a visionary, but perhaps more importantly, he’s a strategic thinker who can implement his ideas into pilots, move pilots into models and transform models into mainstream systems,” said Carole Caplan of Ann Arbor, Fair Food Network’s director of program enhancement.
The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation has supported the Fair Food Network since its beginning. “Oran’s commitment comes from a deep, spiritual place rather than merely an academic pursuit,” said foundation vice president Jodee Fishman Raines of Detroit. “His work is influenced by the traditions and ethics of justice rooted in his Jewish heritage.”
The Jewish Fund awarded the Fair Food Network the Robert Sosnick Award of Excellence in 2013.
In addition to expanding Double-Up Food Bucks’ presence at farmers’ markets, the Fair Food Network will use the $5.1 million USDA grant and matching donations on three initiatives:
- Bringing Double-Up Food Bucks to grocery stores, a process that has already started with four independent stores in the Detroit area. By 2018, Hesterman hopes to see the program in 50 stores. He plans to involve chain stores as well as independents. “There’s no reason we can’t be in every Meijer, every Kroger in the state,” he said.
- Expanding the network of farmers’ markets that use mobile technology for Double-Up Food Bucks. Farmers can process SNAP cards using smart phones, eliminating the need to distribute tokens. “I’m calling it ‘from tokens to technology,’” he said, noting that the digital advance will greatly reduce the program’s administrative costs.
- Piloting year-round programs. Until now, the use of Double-Up Food Bucks has been seasonal, as is most of Michigan agriculture. Now, some farmers are growing greens and potatoes year-round and other Michigan produce, such as apples, can be stored long after their season ends, Hesterman said.
He thinks his program can appeal to individual donors as well as foundations.
“It’s an opportunity for individuals to make a difference in Michigan,” he said. “They can support hard-working Michigan farmers and help low-income kids get the food they need.”
For more about the Fair Food Network, go to www.fairfoodnetwork.org. Hesterman included his personal email so he can hear from JN readers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Barbara Lewis, Contributing Writer