A helpful model for bringing together organic consumers, sustainability advocates, and local farmers was sponsored by Indiana University South Bend, which recently hosted the Michiana Food Summit to explore key topics such as shopping locally, supporting community gardens, and creating farm-to-school programs to increase children’s access to fresh, healthy foods. The keynote speaker was Oran Hesterman, director of the Fair Food Network in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and author of the just-published book Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All. Hesterman brings important perspectives to his advocacy of sustainable food systems–he worked as an organic farmer, has a doctorate in soil science, and has extensive experience in advocacy and public policy on the state level in Michigan. According to Hesterman, the food system in the US is essentially broken, and many do not have access to healthy food. Hesterman highlighted this country’s increased rates of obesity, and said that if present trends continue the cost of treating America’s obesity-related diseases will be $345 billion by 2018. In order to tackle this problem, we need a shift in our food system so everyone has access to the healthy food needed to live healthy lives, said Hesterman.
On the brighter side, he also gave the very good news that there has been an increased call to create a fair food system in the country, where no one is exploited and everyone has a piece of the economic pie. Models based on this system are emerging all over the country, such as farm-to-school programs. Hesterman pointed to a number of signs of hope. For example, only eight years ago there were only four farm-to-school programs in the country, but now there are 10,000 of these models. At the community level, there has also been a huge increase in the number of farmers’ markets. Since 1994, the number of farmers’ markets has grown by 8.5 percent annually. This change is widespread, driven by people with a wide range of incomes, including those on public assistance or who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Hesterman also talked about the Double Up Food Bucks program, which makes farmers’ markets accessible to Michigan residents who receive SNAP assistance. Typically, SNAP would not be possible to use at Michigan farmers’ markets, but this change in policy makes farmers’ markets accessible to those on low incomes. For each $20 spent at a farmers’ market, people with SNAP cards receive $20 worth of tokens which can be spent on any Michigan-grown foods at that market. This way, those receiving SNAP get double the value of their original purchase. This is a way to expand markets for those receiving food assistance in Michigan, while simultaneously supporting local farmers. This program has been promoted heavily, through the use of direct mail postcards, radio public service announcements, and billboards throughout Michigan. The result was 39,000 Michigan residents using the program in 2011, a third of whom were first-time shoppers at farmers’ markets. The Double-Up Bucks Program was initiated through the combined efforts of local farmers and fair food advocates, who needed to form relationships with state legislators and voice their support of this program. The Fair Food Network also got financial commitments from state and local community foundations throughout Michigan to match the spending by SNAP consumers at Michigan farmers’ markets. The story of how the Double-Up Bucks Program came to be was a great example of citizen advocacy, inspiring and hopeful.
Hesterman also spoke about federal farm and food policy and opportunities for advocates of sustainability to lobby and make a difference. In analyzing the 2008 Farm Bill, Hesterman noted that the largest percentage of spending in the bill (68 percent) went to USDA nutrition, food stamps, and entitlement programs benefiting those requiring food assistance benefits. Sustainable food advocates should note this, and consider that portion of the Farm Bill budget particularly important to influence, said Hesterman. Seventy billion dollars a year actually goes towards SNAP benefits distributed by the federal government to the 50 states, but Hesterman suggested that programs like the Double-Up Food Bucks program in Michigan would be a way of appropriating that money in a fashion that’s a win-win for both SNAP consumers and local farmers. Hesterman further noted that 90 percent of food stamp benefits are not used in grocery stores, but are instead spent in other locations like convenience stores, where the food is bound to be unhealthy. To address this problem, sustainable food advocates could work to replicate Double-Up Food Bucks in their own home states and use the SNAP budget more healthfully, benefiting local farmers as well.
Other areas where sustainable farmers and advocates might work to influence policy include college and university dining, hospitals and health care institutions, and grade schools, according to Hesterman. He said that programs such as the National Food Corps, the Real Food Challenge, and the growing community garden movement are all extremely promising.
Hesterman stressed the need to continually work to shift public policy at the local and state levels, such as by starting a food policy council, working to preserve local farmland, or being attentive to the 2012 Farm Bill reauthorization and working with US senators on sustainable agriculture aspects. Important in all this work is the building of “food hubs” between farmers, consumers, nutritionists, those with experience in the food system, and those living in food deserts, to develop policies and systems that can produce change. All of these are fundamentally issues of racial and social justice, according to Hesterman, and opportunities to repair and transform the food system.