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Posted on Sun, Jan 24, 2010 : 5:55 a.m.

Oran Hesterman reinvents Fair Food Network to redesign 'broken' food system

By James Briggs


Oran Hesterman started the Fair Food Network in Ann Arbor after the Madoff financial scandal destroyed his previous foundation focused on improving food systems in the U.S.

Lon Horwedel |

There might soon be a day when Oran Hesterman can look back at the last year and appreciate all the struggles he's been through.

That time, though, has not quite come for Hesterman, president and CEO of the Fair Food Network, a national non-profit based in Ann Arbor.

His new organization is the reincarnation of the Fair Food Foundation, which closed in December 2008 after its primary donors, Jeanne and Kenneth Levy-Church, lost big in the Bernard Madoff scandal.

"Maybe I can look back 10 years from now and it will seem momentary, but in the midst of losing pretty much our entire financial base for the Fair Food Foundation, basically overnight, it certainly didn't seem like a temporary problem," Hesterman said. "I had to think long and hard about what that meant in terms of what I was going to do next in my career."

As Hesterman considered his options, though, he decided there really was only one: He would keep doing what he had always done, dedicating his life toward improving what he calls a broken food system.

Hesterman, drawing from 15 years of experience at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has relaunched as the non-profit Fair Food Network and hit the fundraising trail, sending grant proposals to a variety of foundations.

The fundraising has been so successful that the Fair Food Network could soon increase its board-approved annual budget from more than $600,000.

"We have about eight foundations supporting us, and we're working on a number of proposals to other foundations," Hesterman said. "My goal is to have us be a diversified (organization)."

Even with the intense fundraising required to relaunch the Fair Food Network, the nonprofit also has been hard at work promoting new initiatives. Among them is a double-value program piloted last year at participating farmers' markets.

Through the program, low-income residents could increase the value of their Michigan Bridge Cards by purchasing Michigan-grown goods. Fair Food Network helped promote and fund the program, and Hesterman hopes to expand it this year.

"You encourage people to eat healthier diets, and at the same time use that food assistance money to help the local economy and local agricultures," Hesterman said. "We're hopeful this is a program we can spread to every farmers' market in the state of Michigan that has the ability to accept the Bridge Card."

The pilot proved successful at Detroit Eastern Market, where folks purchased thousands of dollars in extra produce, Eastern Market President Daniel Carmody said.

"It's a huge way to strengthen that linkage to people who generally have poor access to healthy food. Low-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer grocery stores," Carmody said.

Carmody is among those who are glad the Fair Food Network has emerged from the struggles of late-2008. Both organizations are part of a close-knit consortium of markets and nonprofits working to improve the food system in Southeast Michigan.

"There's a very close partnership between ourselves and the Fair Food Network, and other neighborhood markets," Carmody said. "They got out, identified funding sources, and got the funding. We helped them administer it within the city of Detroit."

Detroit, for obvious reasons, is among the primary focal points for the Fair Food Network, but Hesterman also urges residents of more affluent communities, like Ann Arbor, not to be deceived into thinking their food system is perfect.

"Whether you live in Detroit and have a very modest income, or live in Ann Arbor and are very (strong) financially, you live in the midst of a broken food system," Hesterman said. "The place where the symptoms of that broken food system are felt most harshly are in the city of Detroit.

"But our food system is as broken as our health-care system. If you have enough money and access, you can buy your way into Ann Arbor. If you have unlimited (finances), you can make-believe that's not a problem, but we know that doesn't mean there's not an issue with a broken system."

Hesterman continues to work toward reinventing that food system, just as he works to reinvent the Fair Food Network. He recently moved into a new office on East Washington in downtown Ann Arbor as part of the rebuilding.

"If we understand what our purpose in life is, the structure of how to (fulfill it) can vary," Hesterman said. "I pursued this purpose and passion in my life from the having been an organic farmer when I was younger, having been in academia, and now with a nonprofit organization. Those are all very different structures that have changed along the way.

"What's consistent is there's a vision and purpose of what my life is about. As long as someone's clear about that, as the structures change, you can figure out how to get that work going."


The Picker

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 : 5:37 p.m.

He is sporting a nice Rolex in the picture. The new office on Washington is certainly the best value for the foundations money and purposes.


Mon, Jan 25, 2010 : 9:30 a.m.

What makes you think his time is free? I'm all for what he's doing- from what you can gather it sounds like a great program but I hope he's not doing it gratis. That is unsustainable. The story says his budget is $600K-ish: "The fundraising has been so successful that the Fair Food Network could soon increase its board-approved annual budget from more than $600,000." My God, what a sentence THAT is. Once you parse it you see the current budget is more than $600K so part of that is surely his salary- if I had to guess.. which... I do so that's my guess. As for what's broken in the food system, I can give MY opinion (and I realize the article was nominally about this other guy) and say that the entire US food industry is far more concerned with packing ever more simulated nacho cheese flavor onto a corn chip that it is with making more nutrient-packed fresher foods. That's a start to understanding what's broken. Then take a look at the exploding rate of pediatric diabetes. Then take a look at how this food system leads into the bankrupting of our health care system.

The Picker

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 : 12:34 a.m.

Doesn't food gatherers provide this same service? For free? Well its nice that this guy donates his time for free.


Sun, Jan 24, 2010 : 11:54 a.m.

I agree with that. So was this a profile of the man? If so, there was precious little detail about him personally or professionally. Providing a link to a website is not sufficient. Telling people to go hit the internet and find out what makes him interesting is what anonymous e-mail chains do. I have no idea what the Fair Food Foundation was, either. Nor the WK Kellogg Foundation -- though I assume it has something to do with cereal. And left to my own devices, I might assume a cereal conglomerate like Kellogg's might be a big part of the broken food system? Somebody call Rewrite..

Andrew Thomas

Sun, Jan 24, 2010 : 11:16 a.m.

Well, I'm sure there is a story in here somewhere, but I'll be darned if I can find it. This article rambles on for some 20 paragraphs, and not once does it explain what the Fair Food Network is or does. Is it a food cooperative? A food bank? An advocacy group for the poor? The only clue is that it has something to do with leveraging the buying power of the Bridge Card, and seems to have something to do with farmers' markets. And what the heck does Mr. Hesterman mean by "a broken food system"? This is a pretty sorry piece of reporting.