by San Slomovits, photography by Susan Ayer
Oran Hesterman is 67, but moves with the vigor and energy of a much younger man. He is trim, with a full head of salt and pepper hair, and his complexion is that of a man who has spent a lot of time outdoors. He speaks thoughtfully, choosing his words carefully. Listening to him answer questions about Fair Food Network (FFN), the organization he founded in 2009, and about which he must have conversed many times, with many people, you still have the sense that he is freshly thinking through his answers. When he talks about the mission and goals of FFN his voice becomes even more animated and passionate:
We founded Fair Food Network on a belief that vibrant local food systems can create health, economic opportunity, and environmental resilience. By making sure more people have access to more affordable food that’s grown locally, we can see improved health, especially for vulnerable kids and low-income families, we can see more farmers farming locally, protecting farmland and open space, and we can see those food dollars help create jobs and business opportunities in local communities, rather than those food dollars being extracted out of the community. Our work is around developing programs that can have tangible impact, and then having the results of those programs be able to inform changes in public policy, so that we start to create more of a groundswell toward a healthier food system, one that’s healthy for our kids, for our communities, for our environment.
It’s an impressive vision and Hesterman’s whole life, it seems, has pointed him toward it. One morning, in December of 2017, I asked him over coffee at Avalon on Liberty, to talk about how FFN came to be. He replied that he’d answer with some stories, and began with one from his childhood.
Oran Hesterman: My dad was an entrepreneur and ventured in different businesses and in real estate – that kind of stuff – in Northern California when I was a kid. And one day, literally, he arrived home at dinnertime with cowboy boots, cowboy hat, and a vest on and he announced to the family, “We’re now in the cattle ranching business.” (Laughter.) We said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, I traded an apartment building in Oakland for a big cattle ranch in Mendocino County.”
Sandor Slomovits: And your mom said… (Laughter.)
Oran Hesterman: So, for about the next five or six years, every day that we were not in school in Berkeley, we were at the ranch.
Sandor Slomovits: How old were you then?
Oran Hesterman: I was about nine years old. The following year, dad gave my older sister, my older brother, and me each a quarter horse because he had traded another piece of property for a whole string of registered quarter horses, beautiful horses. He brought them up to the ranch and I was given a year-and-a-half old beautiful quarter horse gelding that had never been ridden. The work hands at the ranch taught me how to break that horse, ride him, and train him to be a cow pony. I was a little cowboy.
Sandor: So, this was when you were ten, eleven?
Oran: Yeah, my early teen years, I was riding horses, learning how to irrigate pastures, repair fences, brand and castrate calves…really fell in love with the lifestyle, and the place, and being outdoors, and that kind of work. And I can still remember sitting on the fender of the tractor with the foreman of the ranch, really early in the morning, while he was baling alfalfa hay. And I say this because, later in life, all of my research was around alfalfa. I really got to know that plant well. My earliest memories of alfalfa were: I’m twelve years old and the smell of the alfalfa with the dew on it in early morning as I’m baling hay with the foreman.
Sandor: The farming bug bit you early. Then what happened?
Oran: Well, I started college in 1970 at University of California Santa Cruz. And, to be honest with you, I was not that interested in being in college in those days. But, I had a student deferment and a low lottery number, so it made sense for me to stay in school. Nineteen-seventy was the last entering freshman class to get a student deferment. So, I was looking around to see what I could do. Fortunately, UC Santa Cruz was this experimental school of the UC system and every class you took was five credits. One of the classes that I was able to take was a class to go and explore working on the brand-new student organic farm. I only learned later that it was actually the first student organic farm in the country. I was just really magnetized to that place. Couldn’t stay away. The same kind of magnetism that took me to the fender of that tractor on early mornings at age twelve. Being outside with the plants and the miracle of these plants growing, and then to realize that what we were growing was the most beautiful food you can imagine. We were all feeding ourselves with that. It actually evolved into a group of about twenty of us, some students, some not students, who were living in tepees on that land, working that farm, and developing it into something that is now an apprentice program for organic farming – probably one of the premier programs in the world. But back in those days it was a hippie commune of twenty of us living on University property in tepees, farming.
There were two really big learnings that came to me during the time that I was really farming all day long in that huge garden. One was that we had to figure out how we were going to feed ourselves differently. Even back in 1970, it was apparent to me that the larger food system was not one that was going to be sustainable in the future. And the second thing I learned was that it was possible to do it. Because we were doing it differently. Not that everybody would do it this way, but there were possibilities for a different kind of a food system than what I had grown up with. And I knew that’s what my life was going to be about. I discovered my purpose at a young age. This is what I was going to do, one way or another.
But there was something else that also influenced Hesterman’s path when he was in college in the ‘70s that led to the work he has been doing ever since. To describe what that was, Hesterman tells another story.
Oran: About seven or eight years ago now, on a Friday evening, I was sitting with two men and, I have to say, blessed be the memory of both those men because it was the last time I saw them. They both died within the next year. One was Sander Fine, the father of a good friend who is a rabbi up in northern Michigan, and the other was Jim Concannon, a Native American man. We were all up there in northern Michigan as part of a Jewish Renewal weekend retreat. On the way up to this retreat I was riding with Sander, and he asked me a question that I’ve often been asked, “What is a nice Jewish boy from Berkeley doing being an agronomist, a food systems guy?” So, I told him the story about the ranch [and college experience], but I also told him another story.
At dinner that night Fine introduced Hesterman to Concannon and then asked Hesterman to again tell the story of his childhood and his experiences in college. When he was finished, Concannon said to him, “What else were you doing?”
Oran: I said, “I was literally farming from sunup to sundown.” Concannon said again, “What else were you doing?” I told him, “Well, the only other thing, my girlfriend at the time had introduced me to zazen meditation. So, every morning we would sit in the tepee as dawn was coming and then we’d go work. And then on Tuesday evenings we’d walk down into town, into Santa Cruz, and sit at the zendo with a teacher, Koben Chino, who had come over from Los Altos. And Concannon said, “Well that explains it!” And I said, “Explains what?” He said, “What you were just describing was similar in my Native culture to what we call a vision quest. But you were very fortunate because it rarely happens to a man as young as you were in our culture.” He said, “What I think happened was you were quieting your mind just enough through the meditation, through the sitting, to hear the messages that were there for you.”
So, all of that is a long way of answering the question, “What is a good Jewish boy doing going into agriculture and food?” On some level it’s in my blood, and on some level it’s why I was put here in this life. The earth and our communities need a lot of healing, and the most powerful relationship we have with the earth is through food. It’s how she nurtures us. It’s how she provides life. Everything we do is based on the natural processes that the earth gives us, through the soil, and the plants give us through photosynthesis. There’s nothing more basic. I just can’t think of any way that would be more important for me to spend my life’s energy, or whatever talent and skills I’ve been given, than helping us figure out how our grandchildren and their grandchildren are going to feed themselves, the way we have been so privileged to feed ourselves in our lifetime.
Sandor: Do you still meditate?
Oran: Yeah, I do. It’s been a lifelong practice.
Sandor: Talk a little, if you would, about meditation and Judaism. Certainly, there is no conflict, but on the other hand the Judaism in which I grew up never mentioned meditation.
Oran: And the Judaism that I grew up in, in a Reform Jewish synagogue in Berkeley, there was no mention of meditation, there was no practice. Today, my wife Lucinda and I are very involved with Jewish Renewal, and the Jewish Renewal congregation, Pardes Channah, here in Ann Arbor. We have really discovered the deep Jewish roots in meditation and mystical practice, and I find that it’s completely consistent with everything I learned from zazen meditation. When I first learned zazen, after sitting you chant. It was Japanese chants that I learned from my Japanese teacher. Now when I sit, I have Hebrew chants I can do afterwards, Hebrew chants of gratitude and morning blessings.
Sandor: Is your wife also involved with FFN?
Oran: Indeed, Lucinda was quite involved and engaged with Fair Food Network in the early days. Her roles were primarily around communications and outreach in the days before we had a full-time communications director or department. She was especially engaged with the many events that corresponded to the release of my book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy Sustainable Food System for All, in 2011 and 2012. She helped to organize book events in over 30 cities, took on the task of learning and using social media to let people know about the book and events, and connected with folks in the food movement from around the country to build interest and support.
Sandor: What made you decide to write the book?
Oran: In the decade or fifteen years leading up to me writing the book, there was a lot being written and published, movies were made, about the challenges and problems with the food system. Whether you think about Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Robert Kenner’s documentary, Food Inc., or Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation, a lot of very good writers and movie-makers were detailing what the problems and challenges were, with very little information on solutions. And I had been spending a good part of my career on working with what I call “solutionaries,” creating solutions to these issues. I felt there needed to be information out in the world, more than what I could just share one-on-one, or even in presentations, that really gave people hope that there were actually ways to solve this, and that it’s not just theoretical. The reason we know it’s possible to solve it is because we see people creating solutions out there that are working. So, I decided that we needed a book like this and I was encouraged by some very close friends and colleagues to consider writing it.
Sandor: It is being used as a “required reading” textbook in more than 25 colleges and universities across the country. Who did you hope would read it?
Oran: There are three really important audiences that I wanted to expose to this thinking. One was – and is – younger people who have an interest in exploring the field of food systems and sustainability as possible areas for their career and their work in their lives. I have met over twenty young people along the way [since then] who have said to me, “Dr. Hesterman, reading your book changed my life. It shifted my perspective and I now see that working in food systems change is what I’m going to be doing in my career.” When I hear that, then I know that all the work that went into publishing this book was worth it.
Sandor: That must feel great!
Oran: Yeah. The second audience is those who are in positions of creating public policy in the area of food systems, to help them see what potential there is for changes in policy. And that has generally worked well. My book, and my work, and my thinking gets referred to enough by those who are in those kinds of positions that I am very pleased about that.
The third big audience was the world of philanthropy. I believed when I wrote the book, and I still believe, that work to change the food system toward more sustainability and equity is an absolutely critical endeavor that we are not paying enough attention to. Philanthropy has very well-defined sectors in health, and in education, and in youth development, which are all important. And, we need a better defined, larger pool of philanthropic resources going into food systems change. So, part of the target of my book was folks in philanthropy, to help them see what the possibilities are of supporting this important work for the future.
Sandor: Do you see yourself writing a follow-up?
Oran: It certainly has been on my mind. In fact, when I’m in New York in the coming couple of months, I have a meeting set with my book agent to talk with him about this. I’m sort of waiting for the right level of inspiration because I know how big of a project it is.
Sandor: So, what brought you, a California boy, to Michigan? It seems it’s usually the other way around.
Oran: I think Michigan is a fabulously beautiful state and, for somebody like me, interested in food and agriculture, it’s been a fabulous place to spend my career. And a great place to raise a family. Specifically, when I was finishing my doctorate at University of Minnesota, I went there from California because I knew that if I was serious about spending my career and my life’s energy in helping us figure out how we’re going to create a food system that’s going to be healthy for ourselves and for our planet, I had to branch out my understanding of agriculture systems from California. Because California has such a unique climate and such unique food systems, I knew that I needed to come to the Midwest and really learn about agriculture on the Great Plains and on the Upper Midwest; because it’s really different in California. So, when I was finished with my doctorate in Agronomy and Plant Genetics at Minnesota, there was a faculty position open at Michigan State University that was exactly along the lines of what I was interested in.
Sandor: When was this?
Oran: In 1984. I was really interested in sustainable agriculture approaches that could help farmers use fewer external chemicals and rely more on biological processes, crop rotation, information systems, different ways to create more environmentally and economically sound systems that relied less on purchased, outside inputs. And at that time Michigan State was ready to have somebody on the faculty that wanted to explore that, through research, through graduate student training, and through extension work. It was a great place to come. I had a great early career at Michigan State, got to know the state really well in my extension work, traveled to every corner of the state working with farmers and learned very quickly that while Michigan is part of Midwestern Ag, it also has the second most diverse agricultural system outside of California. We have greater diversity of crops that we grow in this state than any other state in the country besides California.
Sandor: I didn’t know that. I have a feeling that most Michiganders don’t know that either. So, you were teaching at MSU. What was next?
Oran: From MSU, I had the opportunity to start doing some work for the Kellogg Foundation through a leadership fellowship that I had been given. (The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was founded in 1930 by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg. It strives to support organizations and communities in creating conditions that allow vulnerable children to realize their full potential.) So, from 1987 to 1990, part of my time was spent away from the University on a Kellogg Fellowship. When I came back from that Fellowship, full-time back on the faculty, I really had some different ideas about how my work and career could be focused on this issue that I’m so passionate about. And that I wanted to think about how to combine the science, which I had really given myself a great background in, with work on leadership and policy change. And through that I was able to do a sabbatical at the Kellogg Foundation in ’91. I spent a year at the Foundation. Following that sabbatical, I stayed in touch with the Foundation, and by 1996, with new leadership at the Kellogg Foundation, I was asked if I would leave the University and come work full-time at the Foundation to help develop and lead their Sustainable Agriculture program, which I had started developing during my sabbatical year there.
Sandor: And that’s what led eventually to Fair Food?
Oran: There’s a whole story there too. The Kellogg Foundation was also a place where I learned much more about the social justice aspect [of food] and got to be much more engaged in food justice, along with food systems sustainability. In 2007, I met some folks with ties to Ann Arbor who asked me if I would consider leaving Kellogg Foundation to start a brand new foundation. So, beginning in 2008, I left Kellogg Foundation to help start the Fair Food Foundation here in Ann Arbor and spent most of 2008 developing that project, hiring staff, and building out office space, and putting the systems together to be a major grant-making foundation. This would be a foundation that would have a sole focus on food systems sustainability and equity. It would have been the largest foundation in the country, maybe the only foundation in the country, with a sole focus in those areas. It was kind of a natural professional step for me to take, and something that the field desperately needs.
Well, unfortunately, toward the end of that year, 2008, I learned one evening that the donors that had helped start this new foundation had lost their ability to keep it funded because their money was invested with Bernie Madoff.
Oran: So, that project evaporated.
Sandor: The far-flung, unforeseen consequences…
Oran: Yeah. When the Fair Food Foundation basically evaporated overnight, I was faced with the question, what’s next? And I realized that the only important question I needed to ask myself was, “So what’s the universe asking me to do next?” And I started sitting, to quiet my mind, like I had learned. And what came was, “All Madoff got was the money! That’s all!” He didn’t get the passion, he didn’t get the creativity, he certainly didn’t get the need for the work. All he got was the money. So, all it would take would be to figure out how to raise the money to keep the work going. So, by January of 2009 I incorporated FFN as a new 501(c)(3) public charity in the State of Michigan, and I started writing my book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable System for All. And we launched FFN in 2009, having really no idea if it was going to work or not. I had no idea whether by the end of that year I would be in another job at a University or at another Foundation, whether I would still be in Michigan or somewhere else. I really didn’t know if this would work. And, something I have learned along the way is that if you don’t try, you’re certain to fail.
Sandor: What was it that Wayne Gretzky said? “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Oran: Yeah, yeah! I either step into a leadership role that I see is being offered…nobody else is offering it to me; the universe is saying, “All right, here is the moment! You either step forward and create the platform for your leadership, or you go somewhere else and find a job where you’re fitting into somebody else’s priorities.” I had done that before and I knew how to do that, but I figured, let me try. So that’s Fair Food Network’s creation story, and here we are almost 10 years later, with a growing team of nearly 30, headquarters in Ann Arbor, and additional offices in Detroit, Boston, Kansas City, and Washington, DC. And programs across the country having impact on public policy in important ways, having real, tangible impact with farmers and low-income families, and really playing a part to demonstrate how local food economies can be more resilient and can create resiliency for communities—and having fun doing it!
Sandor: So how does FFN go about doing all that?
Oran: One of our core programs is called Double Up Food Bucks, and we call it a win-win-win. We really believe at FFN that the way change is going to happen in our food system, and I really believe in many other cases, is to find solutions that create multiple wins at the same time; that by trying to solve single problems, we are not going to be able to address the complexity of issues that are facing us. Double Up Food Bucks has a very simple approach. Anybody who is participating in the SNAP program, what used to be called Food Stamps, can go to a participating location, and there are about 250 of those places in Michigan now – grocery stores, farmers’ markets, farm stands – and for every dollar of their SNAP money that they spend on locally grown fruits and vegetables, they get an additional dollar to spend on more locally grown produce. Families are taking home more healthy food that’s affordable, that money is going directly to support local farmers, and those food dollars are staying in the local economy.
Sandor: Where does your funding come from?
Oran: Our funding comes from a combination of sources. Philanthropic support has been a foundation of our work whether through community foundations, individual or family foundations, or corporate philanthropy. We also have individual donors who are inspired by our mission and want to partner in this work.
The past few years have also brought on federal funding. With our work in incentives, we worked closely with Senator Stabenow and her staff to share Double Up’s impact on Michigan families and farmers. Other legislators were hearing similar stories from their constituencies. The 2014 reauthorization of the Farm Bill – a huge piece of legislation that sets the blueprint of our food and farm system including all the rules, regulations, and resources that flow from the federal government – included a new provision called Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive or FINI program. FINI set aside a hundred million dollars of federal money to be matched with local resources to support programs like Double Up in communities nationwide. This has energized the field - scaling established programs, spurring innovations, and seeding new efforts so that today SNAP incentives are active in every state in the country. While a bi-partisan effort, this incredible progress would not have been possible without the steadfast leadership and support of Senator Stabenow.
Sandor: Is it accurate to say that your influence through Senator Stabenow got that into the bill?
Oran: It’s more about the tangible and positive results Double Up was generating for low-income families and American farmers that helped propel the policy.
In addition to federal support, the state of Michigan has also been an important champion. Early on, Governor Snyder included SNAP sales at farmers markets as a key metric on his community wellness dashboard. They understood that if we can encourage more low-income families to spend their SNAP dollars on healthy food and support local farmers, it’s a win-win for everybody. State support has helped scale Double Up to better serve more Michigan families and farmers.
Sandor: How do you get visibility of the Double Up Bucks program out to people who need it, specifically people who rely on SNAP?
Oran: In a variety of ways. In communities where we’ve got the program, at times we’ve done billboards, bus signs, working with the state SNAP agency. We’ve done direct mail to families and we’ve increasingly done social media work, where we’re letting people know about this through Facebook, et cetera. And then we have some very high touch, on the ground systems – signage – where people learn about the program in stores. And we have volunteer ambassadors who can meet customers in stores and tell them about the program and show them how it works. In some communities, we’ve had volunteers and staff holding workshops. So, every way we can imagine, and that we have resources – we do it – to let people know about the program.
I asked Hesterman how much Double Up Food Bucks has grown over the years. He referred me to a member of his staff, Holly Parker, Fair Food Network’s Senior Program Director. She emailed me the answer:
Double Up Food Bucks started in 2009 at five farmers markets in Detroit. It has since grown to a statewide program in more than 250 sites across Michigan including 94 grocery stores and more than 160 farmers markets and farm stands. Since 2009, Double Up has helped put 9 million pounds of healthy food on the tables of Michigan families. It has also contributed $14.6 million in combined SNAP and Double Up sales – dollars directly benefit Michigan farmers and area businesses.
In the past few years, Double Up has also become a national model for SNAP incentives active in 26 states and counting. In 2017 alone, combined SNAP and Double Up sales of healthy food totaled more than $8.2 million.
Sandor: That’s amazing growth, and a great accomplishment. How do you feel about where things stand now?
Oran: I am extremely proud of the work that Fair Food Network has done, the talented staff that we’ve been able to put together, and the impact that they are having in communities and in policy change. Nine or ten years ago I probably could not imagine that we would have come this far this fast. And, at the same time, I am an impatient person and I understand how much change still needs to happen. So, if you ask me, “Am I satisfied?” No, there’s so much more work to be done that we have to keep at it.
Sandor: What else does FFN do?
Oran: We have a growing arena of work that I am very excited about, and that is supporting good food entrepreneurs. We provide financing and business assistance to entrepreneurs who are building businesses that are transforming our food system from farm to fork – whether increasing healthy food access, supporting local farmers by purchasing what they grow, or using food enterprises to spark economic opportunity in communities that need it most.
Sandor: I read about this on your website and saw that that work is mostly focused in the Northeast.
Oran: This work started in the Northeastern United States through our Fair Food Fund but is growing in Michigan in partnership with the Michigan Good Food Fund, and I hope will continue expanding to more places in the coming years.
In Michigan, we’ve been able to offer multiple business boot camps taking a deep dive in communities including Flint and Battle Creek. We’re now hatching a similar event in Grand Rapids plus a seminar that will bring together specialty food businesses from across the state.
It’s really about offering all people a deeper opportunity for self-determination through food. Everyone eats and is spending money on food every day. So, there is an active food economy in every community. You don’t have to develop it. The opportunity in front of us is to find creative ways to capture that food economy in ways that ignite local economic activity, create jobs, keep our farmers farming, and ensure that health outcomes are not defined by ZIP code or the color of your skin.
Sandor: And, of course, communities like Flint and Detroit can really use the help now.
Sandor: How and when did the social justice element enter your work?
Oran: One of the places where the social justice piece came in is when I was 36, in 1988. I was on the faculty at Michigan State. I was in the hospital with a very severe flare-up of ulcerative colitis, which is a disease that I’d been managing since I was diagnosed at age 25. I had been going with the Western medical prescription of how to manage this disease for about 11 years. But at age 36 it was hitting me: the meds weren’t doing anything, my system was not able to even absorb water, I was getting dehydrated, I was in really bad shape and the doc put me in the hospital. I had IVs in my arms, pumping me full of prednisone and the doctor comes in and says, “Well, you know if this inflammation doesn’t cool down by the end of the week, our only option is surgery to remove your colon.” About two days later, I haven’t eaten anything, all I’m getting is the fluids through the IV, the doc comes in and says, “Before we make a decision about whether to do the surgery, we need you to eat something to see how your colon responds.” So, in comes dinner on a tray. It’s roast beef, a pile of mashed potatoes, and some… (Makes a face.)
Sandor: I’ve had the pleasure.
Oran: So, you know what I’m talking about – some big piece of white flour cake with frosting. I politely asked the attendant to take the food back, and I picked up the phone and called a friend of mine and I said to her, “I need you to save my life this week. Would you please make me some brown rice, tofu, and steamed greens and bring them to me in the hospital?” And she did, and that’s what I ate. And, fortunately, I got better, did not need the surgery, and I’ve been symptom-free for a very long time, all without any meds at all. So, I have learned how to manage this disease in a much different way.
But during that week, lying in the hospital I actually thought how fortunate I was that I knew what I needed to get my body healthy. I knew what food I needed to be my medicine, and I had access to it, and I thought about all the people who don’t, who either don’t have the knowledge, or if they do they simply don’t have the access. And I think that had a powerful impact on me in terms of steering my career into a direction that is both about what we need to do in relationship to the earth and what we need to do in relationship to each other, and our communities. Because all of us need to have access to the food we need to lead a healthy life, not just those of us who are privileged enough to have the money and be surrounded, like we are in Ann Arbor, with basically any choice for healthy food we want any time of the day. Not everybody has that.
Sandor: What would you say is the challenge now? What’s working and what’s not working at FFN the way you envisioned when you started?
Oran: One of the places where we have really taken a leadership role in this SNAP incentive world in Michigan has been with helping to develop technology for transaction processing. You’ve got to have a way that SNAP customers can easily and conveniently transact business to earn their Double Up Food Bucks when they purchase fresh produce and then spend them on their next visit to the store or at the farmers’ market. Initially, we were using physical tokens and still, some places, use those or cash purchase-generated coupons. And we know that the more we can move to, what we’re calling, E-incentives, the easier it’s going to be for customers to use it, the easier it’s going to be for cashiers, for farmers’ market vendors. So, that’s the challenge we’ve taken on, and we’re working with some technology companies to do that.
We’re now also at a point where it’s going to be important for us to continue developing and expanding the funding streams for this, both from the federal level and the state level, and from philanthropists. We have a system now where we can match locally raised money with money from state and federal governments, so it’s a true public-private partnership to support this work. As the program grows, it’s going to be important to both keep that partnership in place and deepen and expand it with more resources.
Sandor: What is the most important thing that you do now at FFN and how has that changed in the last nine years? As a founder, I’m guessing you had a very different role when you began than you do now.
Oran: I spend a lot of my time now in the areas of fundraising and policy work. In the beginning, it was like any startup.
Sandor: You did it all.
Oran: If the trash had to be taken out, you do it. If you had to figure out what printer do we need, I’m there helping to make the decision. I was going around a lot, meeting with folks at farmers’ markets and store owners. We now have very capable staff doing a lot of those things and it’s enabling me to focus more of my time on the areas of expansion, of how we actually take this idea that’s proven to be a good idea—we have good results, we know it works—how do you take a program that we know is working well in certain communities, and actually really scale it. And the reason scaling is both important and possible…we’re doing Double Up Food Bucks because, yes, it has impact on the three areas we care about: low-income families, local farmers, and local food economies. And the SNAP program is by far, the largest single flow of federal funds into the food and agriculture system. About 80 percent of all federal spending on food and agriculture is in food assistance, in SNAP. And it’s right now 75 billion dollars a year. So, our dream at FFN, our vision, is if a small but significant percentage, imagine if one percent—even one percent— of SNAP dollars were intentionally spent on healthier eating and supporting local farmers. That’s 750 million dollars a year that starts to flow into local food economies through the mouths and bellies of low-income kids. It starts to change the landscape of what our food system looks like. So, it goes right back to my days on the farm when I’m 19 years old, thinking about how we’re going to create a system in the future that’s going to be healthy for our kids, healthy for farmers, healthy for our planet. Well, this is one way, actually, to use the system to change the system.
I talked with Oran again in late February, soon after the federal government proposed some possible changes to the SNAP program, including replacing some current benefits every month with a "USDA Foods Package:" a box of non-perishable food items. I asked Oran about his thoughts on the proposed changes.
Oran: All of these kinds of proposals, they come and they go. By the time this article is published, we don’t even know, this one particular idea of America’s Harvest Box may have already gone by the wayside.
Sandor: I hope so.
Oran: Here’s what I know….What I know is that whatever the future of food assistance looks like, I believe we have demonstrated with our work at FFN – as have others around the country – that providing incentives to make healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables more affordable for low income families works in terms of the purchase and consumption of healthier food, and in terms of supporting local farmers. We know it works! So, my inclination is to stick with and expand things that we’ve demonstrated with evidence, that work well.
Sandor: What are you hoping for in the future for FFN?
Oran: We have some pretty specific visions and objectives for the organization over the next five years, both in terms of organizational growth, stability, and sustainability, and also in terms of the kind of impact we’re intending to have with our programs. We see the work, so far, with the Double Up Food Bucks program as really just the start of demonstrating how we can effectively utilize our food assistance dollars in ways that are healthier for people and healthier for the community. We’re hoping that we can help move that from demonstration to much larger scale programming across the country in the next five years, and that way reaching millions of people, and thousands of farms and thousands of communities.
And in our work supporting good food entrepreneurs, our intention is to expand the scale of our investment work in the Northeast and also bring that to additional locations. So, again, to be able to support dozens of early stage food companies that are making sure that healthier food is being made available to those who need it while supporting local farmers, and protecting the environment.
Sandor: Please tell us about your wife and family? How many kids and grandchildren do you have? Where do they live? What do they do?
Oran: My wife, Lucinda, an Energy Healer in Ann Arbor, and I have three children and five grandchildren. Our daughter Sarah is a film and video producer in Brooklyn. She is married to Tim Kemp, who is Senior Manager, Culinary Research, Development and Innovation at Blue Apron, a meal kit company headquartered in New York. They have two children, Clementine (age 4) and Sebastian (age 2). Our middle son, Matt and his partner Paulina live in the Boston area with their new baby boy. Matt is a Senior Cloud Systems Engineer at VMware, and Paulina is a Director of Energy Research, with IHS Markit. Our youngest son, Bryce, and his wife, Clare, live in Portland, Oregon with their two sons, Finn (age 3) and Theo (age 1). Clare is a Pilates instructor and Bryce works for a recycling consulting company, Resource Recycling Systems, RRS, which is headquartered here in Ann Arbor.
Sandor: And how have they been impacted by your deep commitment to your work, and to your abiding passion for sustainable and healthy food and food systems?
Oran: Lucinda’s brother, Ari Kurtz, owns and operates Lindentree Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, one of the oldest organic CSA’s in the country. This farm, within walking distance of Walden Pond, has been one of our favorite vacation spots where we help harvest vegetables, berries, and flowers at the height of the season, and it has given our children the experience of a working farm early in their lives. Sarah has created an award-winning video, “Seeds of Hope” on solutions to hunger and food insecurity, as well as creating additional film projects focused on food systems and agriculture sustainability through her own production company, Phase 4 Media (www.phasefourmedia.com). Her husband, Tim, as a chef and Manager of Culinary Research for Blue Apron, has the responsibility and commitment to healthy cooking and eating and sourcing from sustainable farms and businesses.
Bryce’s commitment manifested during his higher education where he earned a Master’s degree in sustainable development from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. For nine years he owned and operated NextCut, a recycling company in the Northeast before moving to Portland where he now is a consultant helping companies and organizations explore recycling solutions. Paulina’s professional focus is on sustainability in international energy production. Though Matt is in the technology field, his comments reflect the sentiments of all of our children. He says, “(Oran’s) work made me keenly aware of the importance of sustainable food systems to the U.S. well before it was in the mainstream consciousness and press. It gave me an understanding of the importance of providing locally-sourced natural foods to the urban populations within this country and the benefits that it would bring. It helps me to think about food and nutrition beyond the individual dietary choices we all make, and think more broadly about how we can improve the opportunities and access to food for all citizens.”
All of our children, who are now parents, are focused on healthy eating and procuring food from local sources as much as possible. Our family gatherings, of course, center around food just harvested from our own garden and purchased from local farmers at farmer’s markets and meals collectively created and savored by all.
Sandor: You still garden?
Sandor: And you’re a potter, also?
Oran: Yes, I’m still an active potter.
Sandor: When did you start?
Oran: When I was sixteen years old, in high school. My last semester of high school, I took a ceramics class and found that somehow my body knew how to center clay on the wheel. If you can center clay on the wheel, then you can actually make pots. I really enjoy creating functional forms out of clay that can be used for food. It’s also a way that this agronomist can, in essence, keep his hands in the earth. It’s not exactly in the garden but it’s with clay, it’s with the earth. I get so much joy out of creating these bowls. Many times, on Friday, I’ll bake challah for Shabbat, for the weekend. So, early this morning, before I came here, I was mixing up my dough for the challah that I’ll bake this afternoon, and I was using a big bread bowl that I had made. I just can’t imagine a greater blessing than the opportunity to do that, to make healthy bread using really healthy ingredients. My grandfather taught me how to bake challah. He used white flour, I use all whole grain flour. I altered the recipe to make it healthier, but I just can’t imagine more of a blessing than to be able to do that and use something that I was able to make out of clay.
Sandor: It’s beautiful that the various aspects of your life have a common thread running through them: making pots involves centering, meditation involves centering, food, community, healing—there is an elegant unity, coherence in all that.
Oran: I have very deep gratitude for this life that I’ve been given, that I get to live.