“Fair Food: Growing A Healthy, Sustainable Food System For All” by Oran B. Hesterman, PhD

I read this book in January 2013.

So I happened upon this book in my library. (I know, surprising that I’d find a book in a library, right?) I had checked it out several times along with other books and each time I never got around to reading it before it was due back. But something was nagging at me to read it and in January I finally made the time. I’m glad I did.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing public awareness brewing regarding the inherent problems with our current U.S. food system. You may have read some wonderfully written and passionate books on this topic, including Michael Pollan’s Ominvore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy just to name a few. Let me say, if those books appealed to you, you should put this book on your MUST-READ list!!

Like so many of my fellow foodies-in-crime, I have picked up the torch in support of farmer’s markets, eating local, and supporting sustainable & healthy food efforts in my community. But this book begs a larger question: How can we make a healthy, sustainable food system work for EVERYBODY, not just for those wealthy enough to afford such choices? Although backyard gardens, eating local and buying organic are all worthy goals to adhere to, these actions alone will not be enough to fix the larger underlying problems within the overall food organization.

The book is divided into three logical parts. Part one describes our current food system from field to fork and back to field again, identifying the inherent problems that currently existing within the U.S. food system. Part two describes 4 important principles needed for all participants of the food supply chain: equity, diversity, ecological integrity, and economic viability. Also in this section are descriptions of smaller, state-run or grass-roots programs that are successfully working on a local level to apply these 4 principle. Part three of this book outlines how conscious consumers can take the next steps to becoming engaged citizens radiating out from your kitchen, to your community, and beyond.

The inherent problems with our food system generally fall into 3 tidy categories. Problems concerning the environment include issues with soil erosion, water pollution, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas production. Problems concerning diet & health include issues with food safety, food access, diet-related illnesses,  and animal welfare. The third and last group of problems relate to social inequity, such as poor wages for farm workers, plant workers, and restaurant workers. These problems can be addressed separately and individually but in order for us to feel a larger life-changing impact, we must treat these problems as inter-related and attack them as a whole. ‘Fair Food’ cites many examples that, if applied globally, may make a significant impact to changing the current food methods.

A growing number of farmers are stepping out of the old agricultural specialization thinking mode and into a new way of agriculture that practices farming in concert with nature. Methods, such as planting legumes between crop rotations to replenish nitrogen in the soil or keeping livestock and crops together on a farm so the crop can feed the livestock and the livestock can feed the crop, seem like such simple ideas we wonder why every farmer isn’t doing them.  Many of the new methods being implemented are more economically profitable, environmentally and animal friendly, and able to produce better tasting products. Why would we want to farm any other way?? As support of these “new” farmers increase, the older farming methods will be forced to change or desist. It is imperative that we seek out and promote these free-thinking farmers. The book mentions several fine examples: Heritage Foods USA, Shetler’s Dairy in Michigan, and Fred Kirshenmann’s farm in North Dakota to which I’m sure you can find additional local names to add to your list. (let me know about them too!)

And as the number of farmers grows, so to does the number of organizations that support these farmers such as Sustainable Food Lab and Slow Food USA. You may want to connect with these local chapters to see what is happening in your local food community.

In regards to diet and health-related issues, there is a real problem with low-income urban communities having access to good, healthy food options. A term used for these types of communities are ‘food deserts’. These communities often are limited to getting their groceries from corner stores, fast food restaurants, or gas stations. As you can imagine, there are not too many healthy food options available at these types of places. In order for our food system to be fully successful, EVERYONE must be able to gain access to healthy food options. ‘Fair Food’ makes mention of several small-scale local projects that address the diet, health and food access concerns of our current food model.

The Food Trust, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia, developed the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store network. This network consists of over 600 corner stores located in low-income urban communities,  that have pledged to provide a greater array of fresh foods. The Food Trust worked to create an economically viable solution for storeowners to provide these options while remaining a profitable venture for their businesses too. The idea works because it provides a win-win solution for all parties. The Food Trust offers a Healthy Corner Store Tool Kit for organizations and communities looking to implement a similar network in their area.

Another similar, more grass-roots venture is Get Fresh Detroit program sponsored by University of Michigan students. Here is a video they produced showing how they got involved and the benefits of their efforts.

Another program that could be expanded nationally is the “Double Up Food Bucks” sponsored by Fair Food Network and Wholesome Wave. This program allows people with SNAP assistance funds to double their spending points when buying fresh produce that is locally grown at local farmers markets. This type of program helps to improve the availability of fresh foods and provide support for the local economy.

In Milwaukee, there is an organization called Growing Power, Inc. headed by Will Allen, author of a great book called The Good Food Revolution (which should also be on your list of books to read, if you haven’t already.) The last remaining farm within Milwaukee’s city limits, their facility provides outreach and educational services where the local community can learn sustainable practices to grow, process, market, and distribute food. They call this a Community Food Center and hope that their facility can serve as a repeatable model for the nation. Their two-acre urban farm includes 6 traditional greenhouses, two aquaponic hoop houses, a worm depository, 14 bee hives, areas for hens, ducks, goats, and turkeys, a large compost lot, an anerobid digester to produce energy from farm food waste, a rainwater collection system, and a retail store. I have personally volunteered my time at this organization and can vouch for it’s far-reaching effects towards bringing healthy foods to people in need.

As for problems pertaining to fair wages, there are several options to support organizations that provide fair trade products and services. It is important to seek these places and products out that allow for all parties involved to make a decent, sustainable living. One such example in the book praises Costco for going the extra mile to make sure their purchase contracts supply products from farms and factories that provide adequate working wages for their employees. As public demand grows and more people use their buying power to demonstrate their preferences, more corporate suppliers will look to change their current purchasing tactics.

Part three of this book offers several suggestions for bumping up your activity in support of a newer and healthier food system. Many of these things such as eating seasonally and shopping locally may already be second nature to you. Using your freezer to preserve summer produce is a fine way to fill in the leaner winter months in northern climates. And investing in CSA’s (community-supported agriculture) is a great way to get fresh, local produce and support your local economy as well. But let’s say you want to expand your horizons a bit more. Why not seek out a free range or grass-fed animal farm local to your area? Or perhaps you can start a buying clubs with other like-minded friends and neighbors that want to take advantage of buying larger quantities for reducing costs? You can look up Foodroutes.org to join an existing Buy Fresh, Buy Local chapter, or if there isn’t one in your area, you can start one of your own. Why not join or start a community garden (www.communitygarden.org) or community kitchen (www.startingblock.biz) to supply communities with homegrown produce and education on how to cook it? Or perhaps you want to start a group to implement changes to your child’s school lunch program much like Jamie Oliver has done in Great Britain and the U.S.? More information on that is available at http://www.jamieoliver.com/us/foundation/jamies-food-revolution/home.

The point here is to get involved…bump up your efforts. The ways to get involved are endless. At the end of the book, there is a 60 page resources chapter that is a very comprehensive list of the different organizations and groups involved in providing  abundant healthy and safe food for everyone, grown in a manner that benefits the natural environment. Or if you’d prefer, you can reference this list online by going to www.fairfoodnetwork.org

I find these kinds of books fascinating and inspiring. They make me want to do more for myself, my community, and my world. I know that I’m only one little cook in my own part of this crazy world but I believe there are many foodies like me that are interested in taking their food awareness to the next level and might be interested in reading this book. If so, I hope you’ve found this review to be informative and helpful and that maybe you’ll even read the book!