Envisioning a New Public Hearth for Public Health

“Sustainability doesn’t mean a thing if we can’t get people to cookElissa 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


There’s plenty of food, we just need to get into everyone’s hands and then make sure those hands know what to do with it
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.

These classes and demonstrations need not be conducted solely in the community markets, but could start there and spread.  To accomplish this, we need to teach (and organize!) the teachers.  We would need to go to diverse markets to learn and to teach, to listen and to speak.  The goal is to build a network of like-minded people and organizations to rekindle the spirit and emphasize the importance of cooking, and to make it easier for each community to organize and produce these demonstrations on their own, with local chefs and home cooks. This could lead to an online platform for market masters and other community organizers to help them plan and execute regular cooking classes and demonstrations, cheaply and easily, with or without the help of local chefs, for any age group or demographic.

The online portal would also help recruit professional chefs and experienced home cooks, abide by local health codes, and fund and publicize the events in a way that is appropriate for their specific community. It would contain recipes and videos, a social networking aspect to encourage collaboration, and a mobile app component for an increasingly wireless world.  At the same time, it must have printable nodes and other ways to make it possible to share important components with people who do not have Internet access.  Sections available in Spanish and perhaps other languages would be vital as well.

Collaboration with existing organizations is essential.  Local friends of farmers’ markets groups, community organizations, food pantries and shelters, religious groups, Boys & Girls Clubs, school groups, youth groups, seniors and more would all be valuable allies.  In addition, it would be important to collaborate with the many larger organizations doing like-minded work.

Each of the following (and many more) has been doing invaluable work with regard to food justice and sustainability and their input would be key to this project’s success, just as Public Hearth will be a valuable asset to each of them.  This type of networking would be fundamental.

The work of the Public Hearth would support what these organizations do and vice-versa.  It will offer valuable resources, lighting the way and empowering others to lead.



Of course addressing food security inequities has a critical public policy element as well.  On the local level for the Public Hearth Project it is important to make sure policies permit access to local food, to know the health regulations and state tax codes, etc., and to make sure all activities are in compliance.  Continuing the spread of markets into underserved areas is vital, as is a continued push to get SNAP accepted in those markets.  As an added benefit, the Public Hearth would serve as a clearinghouse for ideas and a source for information to engage more people in influencing public policy at both a local and a national level.

All this and more is necessary to address the issues of food justice and health in our country, not just for the economically disadvantaged, but for everyone.  Renowned cookbook author Marcella Hazan once said, “Saying you have no time to cook is like saying you have no time to bathe.”  Yet while statistics show Americans spending an average of 34 hours a week watching television (some of it watching other people cook!), people spend less and less time actually cooking real food for their families.  It need not remain so.  We need a priority and paradigm shift, and the Public Hearth program is designed to encourage exactly that: to revitalize the kitchen and table as centers of our everyday lives with real food for ALL.

5 Responses to “Envisioning a New Public Hearth for Public Health”

  1. […] lot of people who read my essay about fixing our cooking problem pointed out that many people do not have the equipment needed and […]

  2. […] Read the whole essay at http://www.RealFoodForAll.com […]

  3. Check out our web portal for school food reform at http://www.thelunchbox.org. We’d be happy to cross promote!

  4. I really like the potential impact this could have throughout every community. I do, however, feel that some farmer’s markets cater to the more affluant and their prices are too high. Our local community farmer’s markets are examples of such I would so like to see our local market become more accessible to all members of the community…not just the professional/university community. Then, and only then, could a group effort such as yours truly be successful. I dare say that my community is not the only one dealing with this unfortunate situation.

  5. Susan: You may be interested in the concept of Earth Markets, which revolve around Slow Food’s concept of Good, Clean, & Fair: http://www.earthmarkets.net/pagine/eng/pagina.lasso?-id_pg=7

    And please, share with friends and keep the input coming!

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