For a couple of years, there has been lots of buzz in the sustainable-food world about the Fair Food Foundation of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Fair Food was founded recently by Oran Hesterman, under whose leadership the Kellogg Foundation became the key funder in the sustainable-food space. Kellogg has been pulling back from that space; Fair Food, which was gearing up to begin giving $20 million per year, was expected to fill the void.

Today brings a stunning announcement: Fair Food is closing down. In an email message I obtained from the Comfood listserv, Hesterman wrote that the funds of the foundation’s main donors had been managed by Bernard Madoff, the financial operator who has been accused of defrauding his clients of billions of dollars.

The wealth of Fair Food’s donors, Jeanne and Kenneth Levy-Church, has evaporated in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. As a result, "We will be spending the next few weeks closing down our operation," Hesterman says.

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The New York-based JHET Foundation, which funds social justice and participatory-democracy projects to the tune of $30 million per year, also relies on donations from the Levy-Churches. It, too, has collapsed, Crain’s Detroit reports.

Now is a good time to reflect that the federal government has between $5 billion and $25 billion to invest every year in industrial agriculture through subsidies for corn, soy, cotton, and a few other commodities — and billions more in the form of subsidies for biofuel. Alternative-ag projects receive a pittance in comparison, with foundations like Fair Food partially filling the void.

Thus the industrial food system can rely on public support, while alternatives to it vie for crumbs from a piecemeal and clearly vulnerable set of foundations. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that situation?

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