Fair Food

Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All


By Oran B. Hesterman

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A host of books and films in recent years have documented the dangers of our current food system, from chemical runoff to soaring rates of diet-related illness to inhumane treatment of workers and animals. But advice on what to do about it largely begins and ends with the admonition to “eat local or “eat organic.”

Fair Food is an enlightening and inspiring guide to changing not only what we eat, but how food is grown, packaged, delivered, marketed, and sold. Oran B. Hesterman shows how our system’s dysfunctions are unintended consequences of our emphasis on efficiency, centralization, higher yields, profit, and convenience — and defines the new principles, as well as the concrete steps, necessary to restructuring it. Along the way, he introduces people and organizations across the country who are already doing this work in a number of creative ways, from bringing fresh food to inner cities to fighting for farm workers’ rights to putting cows back on the pastures where they belong. He provides a wealth of practical information for readers who want to get more involved.


Praise for Fair Food
"Oran Hesterman convincingly argues that reinventing our food system is crucial for improving the health of our cities and our economy—policy makers are wise to spend time considering the ideas he lays out in this book."
state of Michigan
"Efforts that bring new insights and inspiration to the nation's approach to food and food systems for all—and especially for vulnerable children and families—are critical to the health and wellness of our nation. I applaud Oran Hesterman on both his new book and his lifelong dedication to improving food system policy and practice."
president and CEO,
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
"Oran Hesterman lays out an impressive—and achievable—roadmap to ensure this generation of children grows up healthy, happy, and truly well-fed."
CEO, PolicyLink

This book is dedicated to the many people who are focusing their lives and their work on creating a fair food future. These thousands of fair food "solutionaries" are not content to leave the work to others: in their homes, in their communities, and across the nation, they are working to ensure that current and future generations will enjoy a food system that is healthy and sustainable for us all.

Many of our country's systems are in need of repair. We have an education system that is failing some of our youth and ultimately compromising our future. We have a health care system whose costs are spiraling out of control, leaving many without insurance coverage and depriving more and more low-income and working families of adequate medical care. We rely on an energy system that will not sustain us in the future. And we have a financial system that has come close to melting down.
But there is another system that gets much less attention than it deserves, even though we all rely on it to keep us alive—if we are lucky, three times a day: our food system. When a system we depend on to meet essential needs isn't working, the consequences are enormous. The food system that evolved to bring us abundant food at low cost has grown out of control, nourishing us by destroying some of what we hold most precious: our environment, our health, and our future. The problems it has engendered—from agricultural chemical runoff in our rivers, streams, and oceans, to soaring rates of diet-related illness (such as diabetes) in our inner cities, to the loss of prime farmland due to urban and suburban sprawl, to corporate conglomeration that concentrates 80 percent of our meat supply in the hands of only four companies—are not isolated issues to be solved one by one. Rather, they are symptoms of a food system that is broken and needs to be redesigned.
With any broken system, the place where the dysfunction is most acute is in our inner cities. Take one city, Detroit, which stands out as the most troubled of them all. Detroit is enormous. At 138 square miles, it could encompass San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan all at once, yet it has lost residents and jobs at an alarming rate. Designed to accommodate more than two million people, it houses fewer than 900,000, and its citizens live among almost 130,000 abandoned homes.
At around 16 percent, Detroit's official unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation,1 but the city's mayor and local leaders are suggesting a far more disturbing figure—the actual jobless rate, they say, is closer to 50 percent.2 One in every three people lives below the poverty line. The federal government pumped more than $480 million worth of food stamps into the city in the past year,3 but less than 10 percent of the stores where these benefits can be redeemed are considered grocery stores or supermarkets. Many of these benefits are spent at what are considered "fringe" retailers, such as gas stations, liquor stores, party stores, dollar stores, bakeries, pharmacies, and convenience stores.4
Good food has all but forsaken Detroit. The last two supermarket chains moved out in July 2007, making it the only big city (the eleventh-largest in the United States) without any major supermarkets. Most of the city's residents would have to travel more than twice as far to reach a grocery store as they would to get to a corner store. Many rely on gas stations, liquor stores, or convenience stores for their food. It's not uncommon to be asked in Detroit, "What gas station do you buy your groceries at?"
If we want to repair this broken food system and create a chance for a healthy generation of Americans, we need to start in cities like Detroit. The men and women of this city, like many others, want change. They recognize the gaps in their diet and enjoy cooking. They'd love to have access to the fresh produce available at suburban supermarkets, but transportation difficulties keep them away. "People would walk to their neighborhood store if it offered a selection of healthy, fresh produce and if it was clean and safe.... There's so much excess demand for that kind of thing in our local neighborhoods," one Detroiter told me recently. "You can't get any produce," fumed another. "And the children, they don't even know what produce is. I was picking a pea pod this morning, and none of the children knew what a pea pod was. Never heard of it."
These men and women feel overlooked. Ignored. Disrespected. While there is the beginning of a national conversation about our food system that sings the praises of backyard vegetable gardens and pricey organic produce, the people of Detroit don't even have a supermarket.
Along with my colleagues in the fair food movement, 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.
The food system is failing Detroiters and many other families who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has termed "food deserts," places where access to healthy food is severely limited. But actually the system is failing us all. Even those of us who live in "food oases" and have enough money to buy virtually any food product from any place in the world are living with the fallout of a broken system.
These symptoms all point to a system that is working poorly for us at this moment in history. But Fair Food is not a book primarily about how broken the system is. Rather, it is a book that aims to foster the creation of a redesigned system, one that is healthy for people, communities, and the environment. To redesign that system, we need to understand that the one we have was developed at a time when we needed lots of cheap food and needed to encourage farmers to produce it. Plentiful, affordable food for all is still a vital need and an essential objective for a redesigned system.
Good food means a lot to me. Because I suffer from ulcerative colitis, otherwise known as Crohn's disease, my efforts to find food that soothes my symptoms have led to numerous revelations about the healing power of a good diet. In addition, I've devoted my entire thirty-five-year career to making sure good food is available and affordable for everyone. In the 1970s, long before "organic" was a word in the national vocabulary, I started an organic alfalfa sprout farm; in the years since, I've worked as a farmer, food salesman, university professor, and president of a foundation focused on food issues.
As a scientifically trained agronomist, I know what it takes to grow good food, from the right climate conditions and soil pH levels to the best fertilizers and crop-rotation sequences. While I was a professor of agronomy at Michigan State University, I spent several years as a consultant to the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the oldest and largest philanthropic institutions in the United States. In 1996, I left academia to work as a full-time program director at the foundation, first leading its Integrated Farming Systems and then its Food and Society Programs. For fifteen years, I co-directed the largest philanthropic program in sustainable food and agriculture that had ever been developed. During that time, the Kellogg Foundation granted more than $200 million to organizations attempting to shift food and agriculture systems in their communities and through public policy. In 2008, I left Kellogg to start Fair Food Network, a new institution committed to building a more just and sustainable food system. This national nonprofit organization has projects on the ground in Michigan focused on creating greater access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably grown food, especially in historically underserved communities. We also work to change public policy so that it facilitates greater access to healthy food while supporting local small and midsize farmers to produce it.
While many of our country's systems are in need of repair, if we do not fix the food system, efforts in all of the other areas will be for naught. We are, after all, living creatures, a species that, just like any other on this planet, needs to eat to survive. Our relationship to food is the most basic relationship we have with our environment— whether we are environmentalists or not. The natural ecological systems of soil, water, and air are needed to produce every ingredient of every meal. If we do not feed ourselves in a way that sustains our environment, our agriculture, and our communities, then as a species we are not long for this world. So while we focus attention on education, health care, and energy, we also need to focus our attention on fixing the broken food system.
With most other large systems, we must rely primarily, if not solely, on our policy makers and industry leaders to act on our behalf. We can write letters, attend meetings, and try to make our voices heard on local and national levels. But in the long run, there is little that one individual, family, or neighborhood can do to fix the broken education or energy system.
With the food system we can have more impact. We can take responsibility for fixing it both through individual decisions and through collective action. As individuals we can make different choices about what we purchase and what we eat. We can choose to support a more local and sustainable agriculture and can decide to eat in a way that keeps us healthier. We can join with other concerned individuals to demand different food at our children's school cafeteria and at our college food service. We can plant backyard and community gardens. We can shop at farmers' markets. All of these individual actions can and will make a difference in our own lives and in the food system—now more than a $1 trillion economic engine in our national economy—but they alone will not produce the kind of change we need.
At the same time that we shift our own food habits, we also need our policy makers and industry leaders to work toward a redesigned food system—one that provides safe, healthy, and nutritious food to all our residents in a manner that protects our natural resource base for future generations. As is the case with the health care problem and the energy problem and the environmental problem, if we're going to solve the food problem we need to look at bigger, systems-level solutions and not get caught up in the small stuff.
Not sweating the small stuff is a principle that President Barack Obama understands. In the run-up to the 2008 election, Newsweek caught him in a great off-the-cuff moment. During a prep session for a debate among the Democratic candidates, he was riffing on what he'd say if moderator Brian Williams asked him a fluffy question, for example, what he did every day to make the world a greener place. "Well," he said, "the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f—ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."5
He's right. Changing your incandescent lightbulbs isn't a bad thing, but if you really want to impact the course of climate change, other goals should be higher on your list of priorities, such as new laws and economic incentives that will create lasting change. You won't solve much by staying in your house. I know that the president and the First Lady care deeply about sustainable eating, and the lightbulb principle applies there, too. The vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House is a wonderful symbol and an inspiring action, and the first family's focus on ending childhood hunger while also tackling the tricky issue of childhood obesity is admirable. But it will take more than symbolic gestures to truly change the food environment for kids and their parents. It will require redesigning our food system, which is the focus of this book.
Fair Food is divided into three parts. The first part discusses our current food system, how and why it evolved as it has, and the ways in which it is no longer serving us well. Part Two describes four key principles a redesigned food system should embody and offers examples of how various individuals and organizations have started to integrate these principles, providing inspiring new models for farmers and foodies, businesses and communities. Finally, Part Three offers a practical guide to how you can participate in precipitating big, collective changes in our food system, from your kitchen to your community to your statehouse and the White House. I'll give you questions to ask about community-supported agriculture and at farmers' markets; tools for starting Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaigns in your community; advice for forming buyers' clubs that purchase food directly from farmers and fishermen; and guidance about the legislation you should support at the local, state, and federal level so that your dollars and your votes encourage the development of an efficient, sustainable food economy. Throughout these pages, many of the examples I use to illustrate what a redesigned food system might look like focus on plants or crops rather than meat or livestock. This is a reflection of my orientation as an academically trained agronomist and not because I think animal agriculture is any less important.
This book, a product of my long career and ground-level experience, is intended to add needed perspective and pragmatism to a shelf dominated by journalists and chefs. Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and their peers have compellingly documented and aroused public concern about the full extent of our food problem and have been passionate advocates for reform. But they haven't shown us exactly what we need to do to make sustainable farming and eating a reality. They write from interviews, reading, and observation. I write from experience, based on years of training in agricultural science, and my years of practice evaluating, funding, and assessing the results of sustainable food and agriculture projects nationwide.
I'm not saying that these writers' books aren't useful, or that they haven't contributed an enormous amount to the fair food movement. But you can't go to a journalist or a chef for advice about how to bring fresh, sustainable food to everyone. That would be like coming to me for advice on how to prepare a great tomato salad. I could give you my amateur opinion as a food lover who cooks, but my specialty is how to redesign the food system so that we all have access to tasty tomatoes grown in environmentally friendly ways. My concern isn't only about bringing back heirloom tomatoes to farmers' markets or demonstrating in my upscale restaurant how much more delicious my tomato salad is for using them. My concern is making sure that those living in inner-city neighborhoods have access to tomatoes in a form other than a ketchup packet at a fast food joint.
National change is not going to come from upscale restaurants and backyard gardens alone. It's going to come from the kinds of people you will meet in this book. Now that nearly everyone with the means to subscribe to the New York Times, shop at Whole Foods, or eat at expensive locally sourced restaurants is doing so, the time for systemic, practical, and widespread action is at hand. And I can't wait to show you how to do it.

Our Broken Food System

The System and Its Dysfunctions
A system, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole" or "an organization forming a network for distributing something or serving a common purpose." In a household security system, motion detectors, wires, alarms, and monitors interact to warn authorities of intruders and to keep the homeowner's property safe.
All parts of a system need to be in place and functioning for the system to carry out its purpose: if even a single wire shorts out in the car, the entire electrical system is at risk. The order in which the parts are arranged will affect the performance of the system, and every system, when working properly, creates something that is more than the sum of its parts. A car battery and a bunch of wires, lights, a starter motor, and windshield wipers won't do me much good just lying side by side on the garage floor. But when they are put together in the right order and location—voilà! My car starts, lights up the road at night, and keeps the windshield clear of raindrops.
Just like a car's electrical system, our food system has many components, from soil, water, and sunlight to inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, to equipment including tractors, planters, cultivators, and harvesters, to the knowledge of the farmers themselves, and these are all just in the realm of production. As we consider the food system in its entirety, from production, to processing, to distribution, to retail sales, to consumption, the number of components is staggering. While we can argue the fine points of the purpose of our food system, the major purpose, obviously, is to provide nutrition to keep us all alive.
One way to understand what I mean by "food system" is to follow a single crop from field to fork. In 2010 corn was harvested on 82 million acres of land in the United States (about 27 percent of the total cultivated farmland in the country).1 Since this grain is grown on more acres of cultivated farmland than any other single crop in the United States, let's see what happens as it moves through the parts of our food system.
Food production occurs on farms and ranches. This involves everything from preparing fields, selecting crops and seeds, planting and cultivating, ensuring adequate soil fertility so the plants have all the nutrients they need to grow, managing pests (such as weeds, insects, and diseases), harvesting the crop, and then managing the crop residue in the field.
When you think about corn, the image that comes to mind likely is of a late summer picnic, a bowl or basket piled high with ears of roasted sweet corn, salted, dripping with butter, and ready to devour. Actually, in terms of acreage planted and harvested, this type of corn represents only about one-half of 1 percent of the total corn crop grown in the United States.2 "Field" corn, or #2 dent corn in agricultural parlance, is the predominant kind of corn cultivated by farmers across the country. It is grown in virtually every state in the continental United States but is concentrated in the "corn belt," an area ranging roughly from Nebraska to Pennsylvania.
A farmer typically plants corn seeds at a rate of 30,000 to 35,000 seeds per acre, which is equivalent to 20 to 25 pounds per acre.3 Since corn typically is measured in bushels, and each bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds, on average, a farmer plants about fourtenths of a bushel per acre in the spring, after some type of tillage or cultivation (mixing) of the soil to break up clods, kill any visible weeds, and prepare the seedbed, and after applying fertilizers (at least the three major fertilizer macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). From after WWII until the past decade or so, farmers would use what's known as a preemergent herbicide, which is sprayed on the field after planting but before the seeds germinate and the crop emerges above the soil surface, to prevent the growth of weeds early in the season. Additional herbicide and insecticide applications come later in the season, along with more nitrogen fertilizer. Increasingly, farmers are now planting a "Roundup-ready" seed, which has been genetically modified to tolerate a broad-spectrum herbicide, one that kills any green plant with which it comes into contact. This allows the farmer to plant the corn seeds, wait until the corn emerges, and then spray the entire field with an herbicide that kills every plant in the field except the herbicide-tolerant corn.4
In the fall, the corn crop matures quite uniformly, thanks to the fact that every plant in the field is genetically identical—one of the traits we get by using hybrid corn. The farmer then harvests the crop with a combine, which strips the cob off the plant and the kernels off the cob. The only plant part that the farmer harvests for sale or use is typically the kernel. The corn kernels are then dried out to reduce the chance of an insect infestation or mold developing during storage. The corn is stored either on the farm for later sale or is hauled to a local grain elevator for more immediate sale.
On average, the 0.4 bushel of corn planted in the spring has turned into more than 150 bushels per acre by harvest time. For 2010, the estimated U.S. average corn yield per acre was 163.5 bushels,5 for a total estimated harvest of 13.4 billion bushels.
Once the crop (or animal, in the case of meat production) is harvested, the next step is processing. Some food products are processed only minimally. Fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, may only get washed, sorted, and packaged for consumers. Milk gets cooled, separated into component parts, and bottled. Other crops, including much of the field corn and soybeans grown in the United States, become ingredients for a myriad of processed products. Of the total field corn crop harvested in 2008, about 43 percent was used to feed domestic livestock and 15 percent was exported, also primarily for animal feed. Thirty percent was processed into ethanol for fuel. The remaining 12 percent of the crop was processed and used in thousands of products.6 Out of the more than 45,000 items found in a typical full-service grocery store—from breakfast cereal and cheese spread to mustard and beer, more than 25 percent contain corn in some form or another .7 Field corn finds its way into industrial products as well, everything from adhesives and paint to shaving cream.
In our current food system, meat processing is a complex undertaking that is regulated and subject to federal inspection to maintain food safety. The Office of Food Safety oversees the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the agency within the USDA responsible for ensuring the safety, wholesomeness, and correct labeling and packaging of meat, poultry, and egg products. FSIS operates under the authority of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act. FSIS sets standards for food safety and inspects and regulates all raw and processed meat, poultry, and egg products sold in interstate commerce, including imported products.8
Over time, many authors, from Upton Sinclair to Eric Schlosser, have given us graphic, often quite disturbing descriptions of the meat processing industry. For example, Schlosser recounts his experience working a night shift in a slaughterhouse. He paints a vivid picture of sharp knives swinging as he wades through ankle-deep blood and dodges cattle carcasses traveling along conveyers hung from the ceiling. He writes about this "most dangerous job in the United States ... with injury rates three times higher than the rate in a typical factory." One of the reasons the injury rate (mostly due to cuts with sharp knives) is so great is that the workers, who are paid a paltry wage, are being pushed to slaughter and process carcasses at rates of up to four hundred cattle per hour on a single line.9 (I know a few folks who decided to switch to a vegetarian diet after reading his book.)
After processing, the next key step in the system is distribution. In the United States, the average distance that a food product travels from its point of production to a dinner plate is 1,500 miles.10 Whether it moves by truck, train, or air, most of our food is involved in a complex and resource-intensive distribution system. One way to measure the energy intensiveness of a system is through an energy audit, which analyzes the total energy inputs in a system compared to total energy output. Both inputs and outputs can be expressed with a common energy unit, the calorie. According to an energy audit of the U.S. food system, our food system consumes 10.3 calories of fossil fuel energy to create 1.4 calories of food energy. 11 Much of this energy (more than 30 percent) is used in packaging, transportation, and retail/food service sales. And it is not only in terms of energy that we have a resource-intensive food system. To produce just one bushel of field corn takes nearly 4,000 gallons of water.12 To put this in the simplest terms, it takes the equivalent of nearly eighteen flushes of an average toilet to produce a single pound of corn.
Ultimately our food finds its way to the next stop in our food system, point of sale. Whether you buy it at a grocery store, restaurant, or convenience store, your dinner has traveled through a vast system and many hands. Products that contain ingredients from corn plants grown on those corn-belt farms find their way into wholesale and retail outlets and are distributed far and wide. And while the system for sweet corn might be a bit simpler, it still can have many varied components, depending on the end product (fresh, canned, or frozen corn).
But wait—that's not the end of it: in any system, we need to follow the entire cycle of the product. So we might think of the last stop in our food system as waste. All those parts of our meal that we do not eat—including packaging, wastewater and chemicals from processing, and food that is prepared but not eaten—end up either in a landfill or a compost heap to be recycled back into soil. And, I suppose, we need to consider the waste products that come out of


  • Civil Eats, June 1, 2011
    “Unless you travel in food policy or agronomy circles, you probably haven't heard of Oran Hesterman. It's time you had. Hesterman, who runs the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based nonprofit Fair Food Network, has written a book that just might wake you up and get you to care about what's going on with the food you eat and how it gets to your table. Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All is what Hesterman is talking about, and I've got to admit, this reporter covering food news cracked open his book (which landed in bookstores yesterday) a tad wary.  Would this highly educated and well-meaning agronomist-activist guy really offer anything new to the sustainable food conversation, I wondered, and more importantly, would he speak to regular people trying to feed their families in a tough economy and who might not understand the difference between grass and grain-fed (or why it matters)? Boy was I wrong and thrilled to stand corrected. Hesterman breaks free from a tradition of densely written, muddled prose intended for inside baseball players and instead speaks to us all, loud and clear.”
    Ode Magazine, June 5, 2011

    “Timely and inspiringly optimistic, Fair Food challenges and guides readers toward sustainability and health, for themselves and their communities.”
  • Next American City website, August 24, 2011
    Fair Food covers a lot of territory, which also means it doesn't dive too deeply into any one subject. He touches on everything just enough to enhance the reader's understanding, but not enough to be hard hitting on many of the topics he cares most about. And that seems to be the point. This book is not intended to serve as an encyclopedia for the food movement, but more of a practical guide for concerned citizens and budding activists. It fails to conjure up some of the emotions similarly positioned books do, but doesn't leave you wondering “what can I do to change things?” Hesterman's goal for Fair Food is not to shock the masses, but to mobilize them to action."

  • Publishers Weekly, April 18, 2011

    “Intended as a practical guide for community food activists who want to take the locavore movement across race, class, and city lines, this book illuminate ways in which consumers can become "engaged citizens." Especially important (and rare) is Hesterman's willingness to work constructively with corporate giants like Costco and the Kellogg Foundation….The dedication to social justice is clear, genuine, and logically argued as a food issue. A helpful and hefty final chapter of "Resources" provides readers with a comprehensive national listing of organizations to join, support, or replicate.”

  • New York House Magazine, June, 27, 2011

     “A must read for those who wish to go from conscious consumer to food activist.”

    Edible Buffalo, Summer 2011
    “Level the playing field with the next generations of Americans by adopting what Fair Food and Hesterman promotes. With Fair Food we will be able to apply a solution to one problem in our broken food system at a time.”

    New York Times (Business Day), June 4, 2011

    "[Hesterman] displays a wide-ranging knowledge of production, consumption, natural resources and public policy. He also writes about reform efforts with contagious energy and palpable authority...this is an important, accessible book on a crucial subject. Food for thought and action."

    Serious Eats, July 29, 2011

    “Hesterman's upbeat outlook and gentle push toward activism inspired me to further my own engagement. His book is one of the best I've read on how we as individuals can be involved in the future of America's food system." 

On Sale
Jun 5, 2012
Page Count
336 pages

Oran B. Hesterman

About the Author

Dr. Oran B. Hesterman is the president and CEO of Fair Food Network. For fifteen years he co-led the Integrated Farming Systems and Food and Society Programs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. A native of Berkeley, California, and a former professor of agronomy at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Learn more about this author