When Oran Hesterman visits a new city, he heads straight for the farmers’ market.

“Don’t you just love going to the farmers’ market? There’s great food there, yes, but it’s actually the happiest place in the city that I know,” Mr. Hesterman said to a rapt crowd at the annual Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard potluck Tuesday night. He’s especially found of Detroit’s main market, Eastern Market. “Detroit is often known as the poster child of what’s gone wrong with post-industrial America, but if I can get to Eastern Market . . . I have just found the happiest place in that city.”

Mr. Hesterman is the founder and CEO of the Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit aimed at strengthening the sustainable food system through education and community outreach on local levels. In between platefuls of kale salad, roasted pork, chicken, and every vegetable in season, diners listened to Mr. Hesterman’s experience of making “fair food” available to underserved populations.

Mr. Hesterman brought good news and bad news to Vineyarders from the front lines of the food revolution. The bad news is that by the year 2018 the cost of treating obesity-related illnesses in the United States will top $345 million annually, he said, which “will happen because we’re not doing enough today to create the food environments we need so that everybody has access to healthy food.”

But Mr. Hesterman was most excited about the good news ­— the rising tide of obesity is being met square-on by growing awareness of the issues, he said.

“Unlike many of our systems that are broken — education, health care, the financial system — we know what to do about the food system,” he said. “We know what a fair food system would look like . . . fair food is food that is healthy, green, fair and affordable. Healthy for our bodies, sustainably grown and good for the earth, everyone gets a fair share of it and everyone has access to the food they need.”

Oran Hesterman
Oran Hesterman says the country is “ripe for a change” in its food habits. — Ivy Ashe

Mr. Hesterman said there are small models across the country and on the Vineyard that are meeting the challenge of fair food for all. It’s happening on the policy level, as Congress prepares to take a final vote on the 2012 farm bill, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama’s introduction of a White House kitchen garden and the Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. It’s happening in schools across the country, Mr. Hesterman said, where programs such as Island Grown Schools on the Vineyard have sprung up in droves. Eight years ago there were four farm-to-school programs in the country; today there are 10,000, Mr. Hesterman said.

Farmers’ markets are also an area where he sees change.

“In the last year, farmers’ markets have grown by 17 per cent,” he said. “I don’t know of any sector of our economy that wouldn’t just kill for 17 per cent growth. Guess what? We have it in local foods. It’s happening.”

“It’s happening in communities across the country, including here on Martha’s Vineyard,” he continued. “I saw example after example of farms and school projects of great ideas [today . . . I saw it over and over again. It’s happening in this community and it’s happening all over the country.”

Mr. Hesterman has led the way in his hometown of Detroit to expand the federal food stamp program to include farmers’ markets dollars. For every $20 a participant spent at a market they would receive an additional $20 worth of tokens. Mr. Hesterman said 40,000 people use the program statewide in Michigan, over a quarter of whom were first-time market attendees. Legislation in the new farm bill has allocated $100 million for the expansion of the program into other states.

Another initiative includes the Fair Food Network’s newly-established fair food fund, which will loan money to start up small-scale farming businesses. The fund is intended to be an investment fund, with a handful of financial backers already lined up, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to provide “access to needed capital for businesses that are starting and expanding” that “will connect small-scale sustainable farmers with the growing demand for what they’re producing,” Mr. Hesterman said.

Mr. Hesterman also introduced a new term to the potluck diners: solutionary.

“A few months ago I was sitting with a group of Tufts University students who said ‘we are so tired of hearing about problems with the food system, we want to stop talking about it and start finding solutions.’ On that day I joined their ranks as a fair-food solutionary . . . and I’m recruiting all of you into the army of fair-food solutionaries tonight.”

“I know you’re doing great work here and I’m challenging all of you to keep doing it and keep doing more, because there’s a movement that is maturing,” he continued. “There’s nothing more powerful than a movement who’s time has come.”

Mr. Hesterman charged Vineyarders to shift from being conscious consumers to engaged citizens in “a system that’s ripe for change”.

“I think about chefs, writers, teachers, farmers and journalists that have been working for decades to change the system, and some might be sitting in this room right now,” he said. “We’ll never know which new model or innovation brings us to the tipping point in the food system, but it will happen, my friends, it will happen sooner or later. The time for this change is now.”