August 9, 2022

Off the Shelf: Fresh Tomatoes for Inner Cities

In recent years, a spate of books and films has documented some of our largest food failures. Onto this crowded field marches “Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All” (PublicAffairs, $24.99), a lively book by Oran B. Hesterman, founder and head of the nonprofit Fair Food Network and a former agronomy professor at Michigan State University.

Mr. Hesterman says he wants to go beyond encouraging local and organic food and eliminating certain foods from our diets. He acknowledges that these are important strategies, but he has a bigger net to cast.

“My concern isn’t only about bringing back heirloom tomatoes to farmers’ markets,” he says. “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.”

He points out that many of the same forces that powered the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s and early 1900s — like the mechanized reaper and commercial fertilizers and pesticides — helped lay the foundation of our current system. So, too, did the federal government, which enacted measures like subsidies to advance agriculture and assist farmers.

By the mid-20th century, government action and new technology led to the first industrial farms. As the average farm expanded in size, farmers began to specialize. In 1900, the average farm grew or raised five commodities; a century later, this number was down to about one.

The number of individual farms, as well as farmers’ share of the population, has shrunk drastically, too. In 1900, more than 40 percent of the nation’s population earned its livelihood off the land; today, that share is less than 2 percent.

Agricultural mass production, of course, led to enormous increases in efficiency and productivity. It helped to create an abundant food supply at low cost to consumers. But the same forces that envisioned the farm as a “big factory floor” have also produced unintended but dangerous consequences. These include problems with food quality and safety, animal welfare, soil erosion and depletion, higher energy consumption and greenhouse gas production, and diet-related illnesses like diabetes and obesity, Mr. Hesterman writes.

The book’s use of statistics to document these problems is spotty. But those it offers can pack a wallop. For example, citing a University of Michigan fact sheet, it says, “our food system consumes 10.3 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1.4 calories of food energy.” The author says this is a sign of a broken system, “not because the policies that created it were necessarily bad policies for the time in which they were created, but because the context has changed.”

Mr. Hesterman lays out four principles of a redesigned food system more suited to the present than the past: equity, diversity, ecological integrity and economic viability. He devotes a chapter to each, presenting examples of individuals and groups that have begun to integrate the ideas. In the chapter on equity, for example, he hammers home an important theme: that our food system is failing the poor — particularly the inner-city poor, who often lack access to fresh, healthy foods.

He points out that in Detroit, major supermarket chains have moved out as the local economy has deteriorated. This means that many residents must rely instead on gas stations, liquor stores and convenience stores for their food. It follows, then, that diet-related health concerns like diabetes and obesity are worse in areas where access to nutritious food is limited.

The solution involves more than enticing supermarkets into poor neighborhoods. It also means encouraging convenience stores to carry more fresh foods, Mr. Hesterman writes. It means bringing farmer’s markets to inner cities. And it means exposing children to nutritious alternatives to fast food.

As an example of how to execute this tall order, Mr. Hesterman points to the nonprofit Food Trust in Philadelphia. Since its founding in 1992, this group has done all of the above and more, including lobbying for state funds to develop healthy food outlets in underserved neighborhoods. This last initiative has also helped preserve or create 5,000 local jobs.

The final part of the book offers suggestions on how individuals can work to change the food system. Mr. Hesterman suggests setting up buying clubs to acquire food directly from farmers; becoming active in school lunch and other institutional reform efforts; and forming food policy councils to help governments think about food more comprehensively.

For each potential action, Mr. Hesterman serves up tangible success stories — from the Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago to the New York City Green Carts project to help entrepreneurs sell fresh produce in underserved areas. And he devotes the last chapter to a list of organizations that are helping to redesign the food system.

The author displays a wide-ranging knowledge of production, consumption, natural resources and public policy. He also writes about reform efforts with contagious energy and palpable authority. (I spent part of Memorial Day setting in motion a small buying club to purchase humanely raised and slaughtered chickens directly from farmers west of Boston.)

But the book leaves some supply issues largely unaddressed. Can America and other nations possibly produce enough food from smaller, environmentally sustainable sources to feed the world’s growing population? How can we reduce environmental degradation and the cruelty imposed on billions of cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep every year? For all of Mr. Hesterman’s knowledge and enthusiasm, we cannot hope to create a fairer food system without some kind of rough blueprint that takes on these and other related questions.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, this is an important, accessible book on a crucial subject. Food for thought and action.

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