Envisioning a New Public Hearth for Public Health

"Sustainability doesn't mean a thing if we can't get people to cook." -- Elissa Altman

"The more I work on these issues having to do with our whole food system, the more I realize that our problem is a cooking problem." -- Michael Pollan

The impressive growth of community farmers' markets in the US over the last fifteen years presents us with a great opportunity. While food deserts and other inequities remain a serious problem, access to fresh, local food is on the increase. However, for this trend to gain real traction and have a permanent impact on food access and health in underserved communities, we need systems in place that teach and encourage people to cook, to see the healthful and economical advantages of home cooking, and to share that knowledge with others in the community.

Many organizations do parts of what is necessary, in piecemeal fashion, at a handful of markets each. Now what is needed is a networked clearinghouse of ideas and best practices, recipes, demonstrations, and clear and concise methods for getting people excited about preparing and sharing fresh, wholesome, local food. We can do this while respecting local traditions and cultures, without condescension, using economically, culturally and ethnically appropriate ingredients and methods.

My vision for farmers' markets is that they aren't just places to buy food you can believe in, but community centers that support change in the food systems with resources and education. They are already gathering places for people with some common values, and they are, more and more, playing a role in food assistance. With some key, specific interventions, they could become places that seed deep structural and cultural change.

I envision a "Public Hearth" for public health. It was once common for communities to have a large oven in the center of town where everyone brought their dough to be baked, and everyone shared in the bounty. A modern-day version would not be so much an actual oven per se, but would bring people together to learn, to share, and to cook. Imagine a young mother finding not just a farmers' market within reach of her home, not just fresh, local whole foods, but knowledgeable local people she knows and trusts and resources to help her make the most of the ingredients available. Farmers' market cooking demonstrations with trained chefs and local home cooks, once solely the province of high-end markets, now right within reach of the people who need it most.

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