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Food activist: Do more than 'vote with your fork'

In the public discourse around food, “sustainability” and “organic” are buzz words deployed by the so-called “conscious consumer.” But author and activist Oran Hesterman said during a stop in Chicago that he would rather have people move from being conscious consumers to engaged citizens: in other words, do more than just “vote with your fork.”

Hesterman is founder of the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Fair Food Network and has written the new book “Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All.” In recent years several authors have exposed horrid conditions and pitfalls in Americans’ diets and the mass production of food. But Hesterman – a former farmer, professor of agronomy and policy wonk at the Kellogg Foundation – takes a more inclusive approach to fixing what he sees as a broken food system.

“My concern isn’t only about bringing heirloom tomatoes to farmers’ markets … 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,” Hesterman writes.

Hesterman explores the intersection of race and class when it comes to healthy food access, arguing that changing the U.S. Department of Agriculture food stamp program could lead to one of the country’s biggest food revolutions. He adds that recipients should be provided incentives to purchase healthy food instead of the junk food endemic to stores located in underserved communities.

Hesterman stopped in Chicago this week for a book reading and we chatted about current food reform movements. He takes umbrage at some of their exclusivity.

“The biggest gap is making the shift from conscious consumer to engaged citizen. Thinking [the food system] is going to change by choosing different food is like choosing a different doctor to reform health care. There has to be a change in public policy,” Hesterman said.

“Fair Food” is policy-centered and lists solutions: changing food procurement in institutions such as schools, hospitals and colleges; helping local food businesses get started; forming food policy councils in communities; pressuring the government to give subsidies to crops besides corn and soybeans. At the end of the book, Hesterman suggests resources for food activists, including lists of organizations that address everything from the treatment of workers to the financing of business incubators.

While in Chicago, Hesterman visited Plant Chicago, an old meat-packing plant that is now integrating food production systems that range from aquaponics (raising fish and other aquatic food in close quarters) to breweries. Earlier this week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of an official zoning designation for urban agriculture. Hesterman says he finds the latter development inspiring, though he quibbles with the language used to describe it.

“I use the term 'urban food systems,'” Hesterman said.

Urban agriculture conjures images of livestock grazing in empty lots, which is far from where the movement is actually going; current trends are more about creating jobs and rebuilding successful economic models. Plus ... the deceptively simple goal of providing access to fruits and vegetables.

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