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Food Detective: The cost of fair, and unfair, food

Oran Hesterman is proponent “fair food” — healthy sustainably grown accessible all.

Oran Hesterman is a proponent of “fair food” — healthy, sustainably grown and accessible to all.

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Updated: November 4, 2011 10:13AM

Food should look, smell and taste good. But should food also be "fair"?

Oran Hesterman is the author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All (PublicAffairs, $24.99). He defines fair food as "healthy food, grown in an environmentally friendly way, and accessible."

"Twenty million people live in food deserts where healthy food is not available at any price," he told me while in Chicago recently. "Here's why you should care about that. If current trends continue, the cost of treating obesity-related illness in the U.S. will be 345 billion dollars per year. It's in our self-interest to repair our broken food system."

Americans pay less for food than people in many other countries. The market price, however, does not reflect the real price we pay.

Real food costs are hidden until, as Hesterman points out, "you scratch the surface and look at a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that's the size of Massachusetts, where nothing is living because of chemical runoff from farms all along the Mississippi watershed from Minnesota to Louisiana."

The costs of treating obesity and cleaning up yet another Gulf mess are not factored into the price of a bag of chips. We might pay less out-of-pocket at the checkout counter, but unfair food "is taking us down a road that's going to be hugely expensive for us" in the long term, Hesterman says.

Hesterman sees the fair food movement as an outgrowth of 1960s and '70s activism. As in the years of the "rights movements" (civil, women's, gay), a lot of energy driving the fair food movement comes from college campuses.

"I grew up in Berkeley, California. I have activism in my blood," he says. "What's most exciting to me is every day I'm meeting young people who are focused on the cause of fair food. They want to make a difference, and they're working to change the food system. There's a lot of good news out there."

As a food writer, I sometimes get the vibe that food journalism is viewed as recreational or entertainment-oriented, not as serious as, say, economics or politics. But food is deeply economic and political, and it represents our most fundamental relationship with the planet.

So, does fair food taste better?

"To the extent that fair food is locally grown," says Hesterman, "it's going to be fresher ... and tastier. And I'm going to eat wild-caught rather than farm-raised salmon every time. Not only because it's fair, but because it tastes better."

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and founder/moderator of E-mail

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