Why we need "fair food" not just "whole foods"

Why we need "fair food" not just "whole foods"

The difference between the Lakeview Wholefoods and the 59th street food mart in Englewood is striking. In the first, lemons come in varieties--conventional, organic and Meyer. In the second, I saw a single bag of them on a counter in a dimly lit room with several turned dark yellow and caved in with rot.

Food's supposed to be something we all need, but the disparities between what you can get to satisfy your hunger depends a lot on where you live and what you've got in your wallet. In the last few years, the local, organic food movement has taken Chicago by storm, with farmer's markets and co-ops and organic, locally-sourced restaurants. Well, at least parts of it. Other neighborhoods are still picking through rotting produce and wondering if their local supermarket, now boarded up and abandoned, will ever come back.

But one food expert says if we want to change our food system--the goal of many a local foodie and organic shopper--we can't stop at our own plates. We've got to make the switch from thinking about "whole food" to "fair food." Oran Hesterman's Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All shows us why our food system is broken and what needs to be done to totally restructure it, beyond eating healthy.

Hesterman, a food system expert and professor at Michigan State University, starts with a basic premise: Everyone needs equal access to safe and healthy food.

"If we believe that everyone should have the same opportunity for a good education and access to quality health care, then it's only reasonable to agree that everyone should also have a right to good food," Hesterman writes. "In truth, equal access to healthy food will do more to level the playing field than anything else we might change in our health care system."

To half of our city, the food system might appear to be working just fine. But not everyone is so lucky, Hesterman says.

"If you live in the right place and have enough money, it can appear that the food system is functioning just fine. Just like the health care system seems to function for those of us who have decent insurance and access to competent medical care," he writes.

While locavores tout the power of buying organic or planting a garden, Hesterman says it's not enough. To bring real, fresh foods to communities that have been left out, more needs to change than the label on your can of black beans.

"Planting a garden is great," Hesterman says. "But you don't change public policy by planting a garden. There's no more important open and democratic society than in our food system."

So what does Hesterman propose? He wants you to start or keep eating sustainably. But that's not the end of it. We need to become fair food activitsts. "We need to shift from conscious consumers to engaged citizens," Hesterman writes.

He points to initiatives like New York City's Green Carts program, a $1.5 million project to help people start businesses selling produce in low-income areas of the city. The project has led to more than 375 green carts now on the streets, with  many more applications pending, bringing access to good food and local jobs.

Institutional change is also important, Hesterman says--getting the big institutions around us to think about the food they serve. One of those is Chicago's Healthy Food Campaign, which recently got the Chicago Public Schools to agree to locally source 20 percent of the food they serve to children. Hesterman says we've got to engage schools, hospitals and cafeterias in the fight for fair food because they serve so many people.

Even tax policy can bring about food equity. Hesterman talked to Rob Marqusee, county director for rural economic development in Woodbury, Iowa. Marqusee isn't particularly passionate about food. But he saw that positioning his town as friendly to the growing organic food movement made good business sense. He worked with local officials to create a policy where farmers transitioning to organic production get a 100 percent tax refund on property tax for five years. He's also working on legislation giving tax credits to grocers that sell local produce, helping small business owners overcome the extra expense of working with local vendors.

Hesterman's Fair Food is an encyclopedia of interesting projects being done around the nation to try to fix our broken food system, and not just for the rich and powerful. While it might lack the moving prose of Michael Pollan, Hesterman's book is a call to action--a practical guide for what to do if you care about good food for all, not just for those who can afford it.

One of these innovative, system-changing projects is growing right here in our city, in an old meat-processing plant in Back of the Yards. A shabby, abandoned factory is being turned into an inventive center of local, sustainable food production--creating jobs, local businesses and fair food in a neighborhood that desperately needs all three.

I visited this new idea that's rapidly becoming a reality last week with Hesterman. Come back tomorrow for a photo tour and details on how a local entrepreneur is turning an eyesore into a vertical farm and food business incubator. You'll be amazed just how unwonky food policy can be.

Photo credit: Ines Hegedus-Garcia

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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  • Wait what?

    Why would you compare a Whole Foods to the 59th street food mart? Why didn't you compare it to other south side organic food stores instead like Hyde Park Produce on 53rd, the Treasure Island on 55th, County Fair Food on south Western, Zaleski & Horvath Market Cafe on east 47th, Bonnie Sante Health Foods on east 53rd, or South Town Health Foods on west 95th?

  • @gwill, I agree with you, but I also think that Hyde park/Kenwood probably has the least issue with food deserts on the south side. It wouldn't be a good comparison at all. However, if one heads to the west of Washington Park, there is a great issue with the lack of quality foods.

    I was just joking, as a Hyde Parker, that we probably have 5-7 grocery stores in a 2 mile radius, especially when the smaller grocers on East 55th St or 53rd are included. I think Hyde Park is unique in that regards, compuared to other locations on the south and west side. I'm thankful, but yes, there is an issue with the quality of the food available to many residents.

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