Founded in 2009 and based in Michigan, Fair Food Network brings healthy food to underserved Americans while promoting local agriculture. Their Double Up Food Bucks program has attracted national attention as a solution to food insecurity and as an economic driver for local family farmers. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with the president of Fair Food Network, Oran B. Hesterman.
FT: How did Fair Food Network get started?
OBH: Most organizations were focusing on small family farmers or underserved communities. On the one hand, the solution would be raising prices; on the other hand, it’s lowering them. The work that needed to be done was in the middle. We needed win-win solutions that could address economic viability for family farmers and accessible healthy food for low-income families at the same time. It was based on the belief that vibrant local food systems can provide economic opportunity and opportunity for health. We use our work in Michigan to have a positive impact on communities here and to inspire other projects around the country.
FT: Explain how the current food system is broken.
OBH: When people think about food, they think about the relationship between me and my plate, my fridge, and the grocery store. But they don’t think about the food system as a system. It’s really a joint effort. We’re not going to make the changes we need simply by looking at it as an individual’s responsibility. In other words, we can’t individually eat or shop our way into a better food system. Problems in the food system are seen as individuals’ problems, but these are really symptoms of a greater broken system. We need to redesign and reinvent our food system. It’s a system that impacts our environment, our health, and our economy—and we need to get it right. Our lives depend on the system.
FT: What would a redesigned food system look like?
OBH: We should base our food system on four principles: equity, diversity, environmental integrity, and economic viability. Everyone must have a stake in the system so some aren’t being exploited while others do really well. We need a system that’s more biologically and culturally diverse. We also need economic diversity. This doesn’t mean small is beautiful and large is bad. It’s about finding a balance in which we have small businesses, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and job creation. At the same time, we need a global food system that can efficiently and effectively bring food to people who need it around the globe; this food will be grown locally and sustainably.
FT: What is Fair Food Network currently working on?
OBH: Our signature effort is called Double Up Food Bucks, which we call a healthy food incentive program. It helps make locally grown produce more accessible to low-income Americans by matching food assistance dollar for dollar when used to purchase healthy local produce. We’re encouraging families to spend their food assistance money on fresh fruits and vegetables while supporting our local food economy and local agriculture with that same dollar. We’ve had over 200,000 people have used the program over the past year across Michigan.
FT: What is the biggest challenge facing Fair Food Network?
OBH: The big challenge for all of us is to think beyond our own plates and refrigerators. While it’s really important for each of us to be conscious about the choices we make and the food we eat, the most important single action is to make the shift from conscious consumer to engaged citizen. These changes, which will shape the future, need to be made both in our own kitchens and in public policy.