One of the most life-changing books I’ve read in recent years was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Since reading that book, I’ve started cutting back on processed food, cooking from scratch, and eating local or organic food almost exclusively. I’m extraordinarily lucky to be able to do that. But even as I’ve changed my personal habits, I’ve struggled with the knowledge that not everyone can make these kinds of changes. In Fair Food, Oran Hesterman takes the problems with our food production and distribution system and looks at ways to improve it for everyone, not just those with the financial and geographic advantages that I have.
Hesterman’s work has a strong social justice dimension. He makes that obvious right from the start with statements like this:
I am thrilled that the country has finally started talking about what we eat and where our food comes from. But conversations don’t build grocery stores or make fresh food more affordable at inner-city farmers’ markets. The advice to “eat food, mostly plants, not too much” doesn’t help if, as Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush once pointed out, you can buy ketchup where you live, but not fresh tomatoes.
Hesterman, now president and CEO of the Fair Food Network, draws upon his years as an agronomist and program director for food systems at the W.K. Kellogg foundation to describe some of the problems in our current food system and to introduce readers to people who are making small- and large-scale changes to ensure wider access to better food.
Many of the problems in the system wouldn’t be new to anyone who’s already familiar with the work of Michael Pollan and others like him, and Hesterman does a nice job explaining the issues related to nutrition, animal welfare, soil conversation and such without getting bogged down in details that a lot of readers are already familiar with. But he also brings to the table his concerns about food deserts, a term “typically used to describe geographical areas of food imbalance, defined as a place in which the average distance to a full-service grocery store or supermarket is greater (sometimes by as much as a factor of three) than the average distance to a ‘fringe’ location, such as a gas station, liquor store, pharmacy, convenience store, or fast food restaurant.” Most of these food deserts are low-income areas, and studies have shown that residents in food deserts have more diet-related health concerns than people in areas where there are more choices.
Hesterman’s hope is to bring more fresh and healthy options at a low cost to these people who need them. Most of the book focuses on examples of people and programs that are doing just that. For instance, there’s the Healthy Corner Store Initiative in Philadelphia, which brought fruit salads and bottled water to urban convenience stores. A related effort has gotten Philadelphia youth involved with growing vegetables in vacant lots and selling them to local ShopRite stores. Hesterman’s own organization instituted the Double-Up Food Bucks program in which Detroit residents who receive government food assistance can get a dollar in tokens to spend on Michigan produce at the farmers’ market for every dollar of their assistance money they spend on local produce. The result is double the fresh local produce for people who need it, and more sales for the farmers.
I loved reading these kinds of stories, but I also appreciated that Hesterman spent some time on the even bigger picture, including how corporations can make changes. As much as I love and support the movement toward local food, I am skeptical about how feasible it is to scale it up to the point where everyone is eating fresh local food most of the time. As cities grow and grow beyond their own borders the farms get farther and farther away. (The shrinking of farmland is one of the big-picture concerns Hesterman talks about.) Hesterman talks about how CostCo took a long, hard look at their supply chain for their French-cut green beans and made changes to ensure that the Guatemalan farmers who grew the beans were getting a fair price and healthy working conditions. They’re now extending that effort to other foods in their stores.
Hesterman’s aim in telling these stories is to show people how they can get involved. He urges readers to volunteer for or even start efforts aimed toward food justice in their own communities. He also discusses changes in public policy that readers can push for at the local, state, and federal levels. Such work might include pushing for the state governments to start purchasing food for schools and prisons from local sources. The book concludes with a long list of resources and organizations that already doing the kind of work Hesterman advocates. It’s the kind of thing that’s great for reference, and I’ll almost certainly look up some of the sites before I give the book away.
I have to admit that this book will probably be not be the life-changer that Pollan’s book was. To be perfectly honest, the kind of activism that Hesterman advocates is not something I’m particularly good at. I’m not proud of this, but we all need to recognize where our energies are best spent. However, I am glad to know about these issues so I can talk about them with people who are better advocates than I and so that I can keep them in mind when I go to vote. With a little thought, I may find other ways to use my energies to support this movement. (Hey, like reviewing this book maybe!)
As for the writing, the book is at times too repetitive and is never particularly scintillating, just clear and straightforward, which is certainly appropriate for the topic. Some readers might find that Hesterman’s passion crosses the line into preachiness. I didn’t find that to be the case, but I imagine the quote I cited at the top of this review would be a pretty good litmus test. Personally, I grinned at the dig at Pollan in that quote, as much as I (and Hesterman) appreciate what he’s done to raise awareness. Awareness and personal changes are a good first step.