Oran B. Hesterman’s Fair Food
Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All
NY: Public Affairs, 2011

Though viewed through a consistently American lens, Fair Food has much of value to offer readers and eaters beyond those borders.

In his introduction, Hesterman draws lines between what others who have written about our food system (specifically Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser) and his text; Hesterman is not a journalist or a chef, he is an agricultural scientist who has worked with sustainable food and agriculture project worldwide.

He says that he doesn’t know what makes a great tomato salad; he knows how to redesign the food system so that we all have access to tasty tomatoes grown in environmentally friendly ways.

Fair Food is divided into three sections; in the first, “Our Broken Food System”, one does feel that — if you’ve read in this vein before, including the authors that Hesterman has already mentioned — this has been said before.

And it’s worth saying. But if you have already followed another writer’s explanations of the industrial food system, Hesterman’s tracing of a single crop from field to fork is not necessarily bringing anything fresh to the table.

Nonetheless, even here, Hesterman does offer specific anecdotes and statistics that are different (I learned a lot about Detroit’s struggling food system, for instance), but it’s not until the second segment is underway that the reader gets a sense of the different angle that the author feels he contributes to this discussion.

In “Principles of a Fair Food System”, and in the third segment, “From Conscious Consumer to Engaged Citizen”, it’s clear the way in which the author sees his work as distinct. And one way in which it most certainly does stand out is the lengthy chapter of resources that he offers to his readers (and this list is constantly revised and updated at Fair Food Network).

In the past I have been more active in these issues than I am now, but I remain a “conscious consumer”. As such, I found Fair Food informative, but I would be more likely to recommend Michael Pollan’s or Marion Nestle’s or John Robbins’, or Jane Goodall’s, or Barbara Kingsolver’s books to other readers and eaters.

He writes: “I’m not saying that these writers’ books are useful, or that they haven’t contributed an enormous amount to the fair food movement. But you can’t go to a journalist or a chef for advice about how to bring fresh, sustainable food to everyone.”

That might be true. But those writers are writing about food and food systems in a way that resonates with me, in a way that affects how and where I spend my food-dollars and what I put on my fork.

And even though they, too, are writing as Americans, their perspective feels more global to me (sometimes still very grassroots in nature, but in such a way that you can imagine building your own community where you are as they have built theirs where they are).

I’m not at the stage where I am prepared to actively contribute to changing the system beyond that, so I am not Hesterman’s ideal reader. Are you?

Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet
The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It
Bloomsbury, 2010

Now this is my kind of book.

“I wrote this book for anyone interested in the food on their plate and the sky up above. No prior knowledge of climate-change science is required.”

Like Hesterman’s, Lappé’s book is also divided into parts. The first two are examining the system currently in place in the bulk of the world (“Crisis” and “Spin”), and the last two are examining the alternatives (“Hope” and “Action”).

More specifically, the earlier parts of the book consider the industrial food system that’s keeping those Walmart shelves stocked; the later parts focus on the alternative, “a food system that is tapping nature’s wisdom to heal the climate”, which stretches from “the rainforests of Indonesia to the erosion-marked ravines of Oaxaca, Mexico”: “this other food system is alive and well”.

In her introduction, Lappé announces that she is neither a scientist nor a farmer, but she has learned from both scientists and farmers (and many others besides).

She also gives thanks to writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who have helped people, the world over, wake up “to the real price of our industrial food system”. (I think this is a mark of Lappé’s confidence, that she does not need to suggest a weakness in a different approach that these other writers have taken; I disliked this element of Hesterman’s approach.)

There is a lot of science-y stuff here: pie charts with percentages about emissions, talk of soil and fertilizer, and tables which relate what gases are released along the food chain.

There are also lots of buzz-words, biz-speak point-form lists, chatter about principles and ingredients, acronyms and endnotes.

But around all of that are short narratives which draw the reader to the heart of what’s being discussed; this is not just information, it’s information in a human context. That’s what drives change, for me, as a reader, as an eater.

Lappé often cites statistics that are specifically American. For instance, she states that, by the mid 1990s, hogs in North Carolina were producing as much waste as all the humans in NC, CA, NY, TX, PA, NH and ND combined.

But that’s followed up quickly with more general discussion that reaches beyond those borders, observing that the U.S. has “the dubious honor of being a world leader in man-made methane emissions”.

(I realize that might seem a petty distinction, but I’m reading this as a Canadian, one well aware of the influence of my southern neighbours, but one with wider-reaching concerns about my fork and plate; I appreciate that Lappé is considering things from a local and a global perspective.)

Some sections of Diet for a Hot Planet that I think are particularly relevant? How to recognize Greenwashing when you see it. The controversy around palm oil. Her recognition of the role that habit plays in our daily lives (and where that leaves us vulnerable to perpetuate patterns that we recognize are unjust and short-sighted).

Her resources section is shorter than Hesterman’s, but it’s also in small-print and its descriptions are generally short, and there are instances in which websites are included in a footnote throughout the text.

For me, Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet offers suggestions and advice that I feel I can take to the market with me, and bring to the table, for an immediate effect on the food that nourishes the family and friends with whom we share food.

These count towards my 2011 Foodie Challenge reading. Have you been reading about what’s on your plate lately?