The right to eat well: Access to healthy food options is Berkeley natives dream

Growing up in two very different spots in Northern California in the 1950s, Oran Hesterman had a dual life — city kid, country kid.

During the school year he lived in Berkeley, attended Hebrew school at Congregation Beth El and was active in Young Judea. But during every school vacation and the long stretches of summer, he worked with his father, a Jewish cattle rancher, on their family farm in Mendocino County’s Potter Valley. There he herded cattle, fixed the irrigation system and learned what it meant to be a working cowboy.

Oran Hesterman photo/© douglas elbinger 2010

“I have agriculture in my blood,” Hesterman says.

Those formative years had a huge effect on his later-life goals. The married father of three has spent his life devoted to agriculture and social justice — the latter of which he credits to Jewish values such as tikkun olam.

He certainly has experience studying food systems — as an undergrad at U.C. Santa Cruz he started and eventually sold his own alfalfa sprout business, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy (the science and technology of producing and using plants for food) and plant sciences from U.C. Davis, and he later received a Ph.D. in agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota.

After 17 years of work leading integrated farming systems for national nonprofit W.K. Kellogg Foundation, he started his own nonprofit, the Fair Food Network in Ann Arbor, Mich. — the town he now calls home — in 2009. This spring his first book, “Fair Food,” was released; it’s a resource guide for those interested in changing our current food system. Fair food is the belief in the fundamental right to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food.

In August, Hesterman will be the keynote speaker at the first summer Hazon Food Conference from Aug. 18 to 21 in Davis.

Before that, he’ll make a book-tour stop June 26 at Books Inc. in Berkeley. “It’s less about the book, more about this movement,” Hesterman says of his upcoming Bay Area visit. “The events are in celebration of the maturity of this healthy, local, sustainable movement.”

At each appearance (some are invitation only) he plans to bring together local community food activists to network and be a part of the conversation. His book includes case studies on many of these localized programs to show working systems; it also includes a resource guide at the end with contact information for about 150 programs nationwide.

“Fair Food” is divided into three sections: history of the current food system, key principles a redesigned food system should embody and a practical guide to how individuals can participate in big, collective changes in the system — for example, shopping at farmers markets is good, working toward major policy change is better.

Hesterman’s take on food issues is

different than, say, journalist Michael Pollan (author of “In Defense of Food”) and others who’ve tackled the subject in print and film recently, because he comes from a different perspective.

“You can’t go to a journalist or a chef for advice about how to bring fresh, sustainable food to everyone,” Hesterman explains in the book. “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 … but my specialty is how to redesign the food system so that we all have access to tasty tomatoes grown in environmentally friendly ways.”

Access to healthy food is the most consistent issue Hesterman discusses.

“Many people believe that the greatest barriers to healthier food in [low income] communities is that they don’t know what healthy food is or they’ve lost the knowledge of how to cook — these are two big urban myths,” Hesterman says.

With the Kellog Foundation he’s done studies in both Detroit and parts of Oakland and found that residents are every bit as knowledgeable about what is healthy as residents of higher income communities. Their primary barrier is physical access to grocery stores and farmers markets. In Detroit, most residents live in areas where the average distance to healthy food options (at places such as supermarkets and farmers markets) is far greater than to “fringe” locations such as gas stations, liquor stores or convenience stores.

Hesterman started thinking more in depth about the importance of food access when, at age 36, he found himself with a flare-up of ulcerative colitis so awful, he ended up in the hospital. He was told he might need surgery to remove his colon, unless he got healthier. Yet the hospital food he was served (roast beef, mashed potatoes and a slice of cake) could worsen his condition, he believed, so he asked a friend to bring him brown rice and tofu every day. The experience made him realize the importance of access to healthy food.

At home in Ann Arbor these days Hesterman picks up food from farmers markets and his own garden, where this time of year he harvests lettuce, chard and kale for Shabbat dinner. But he’s also keenly aware of how privileged and blessed he is to have those options.

“Sometimes I think about why I care about this issue and why others should,” Hesterman says. “For those of us who have the ethic of tikkun olam, you care because when there’s injustice anywhere, there’s injustice everywhere.”


Oran Hesterman
will appear at 5 p.m. June 26 at Books Inc., 1760 Fourth St., Berkeley. For information on the Fair Food Network, visit www.fairfoodnetwork.org.

“Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All” by Oran B. Hesterman (320 pages, PublicAffairs, $24.99)