Have you ever thought about where your food comes from? Unless you’re growing your own produce in your yard, chances are the apple in your fruit bowl traveled an average of 1,500 miles to get to you.
Thousands of farms around the nation supply your favorite grocery stores with fresh produce, meat, dairy products, and more. Businesses are continually working on improving the process of transporting food from the farm to your table. Here’s a look at how it’s done.
The Origin of Your Food
Some consumers consider “farm to table” as a more local process. This means they purchase food from local farmers’ markets to support local agriculture. Shopping locally is good for the environment as well, as it bypasses utilizing resources to process, package, and distribute goods to customers.
You can still acquire quality products from chain grocery stores, but your carbon footprint increases because there is more work to get the food to your table. If you live outside California, chances are every kiwi, plum, and spinach leaf you purchase traveled from a west coast farm to a store near you.
Who Grows the Food We Buy at the Store?
In addition to California, much of the nation’s produce is sourced from other countries. According to Rural Migration News, over half of the fruit purchased in the US was imported from Mexico in 2019. When it comes to vegetable imports, about 75% of what’s purchased in the US is imported from Mexico as well.
Some farmers process their own food, while others outsource this job. Depending on the type of product, “processing” can include sorting good from bad, cleaning it, preserving it, and packaging it.
These steps can be performed in packing houses, and some fruits and veggies will be waxed, turned into jams, or packaged in pallets while they await transport.
Trains, planes, and ships are required for transporting goods from farms to retail stores and to restaurants. As of 2021, the distribution of all sorts of goods is delayed due to a shortage of workers in the transportation industry. If you want a job with long-term security, now might be the time to train as a long-haul trucker or a pilot with a cargo license.
Did you know that produce entering the United States from other countries has to pass through customs? The US Customs and Border Protection agency inspects agricultural imports at US borders prior to entry. After approval, the goods can continue on their way to warehouses that will distribute to retail stores.
According to a study by the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, e-commerce is having an impact on food distribution. More retailers are offering home delivery services, which involves having apps or online platforms that allow for virtual shopping and payment. The logistics of carrying out grocery and restaurant deliveries are complicated; some items need special packaging in order to stay undamaged and fresh in transport. Businesses altering their distribution methods need to rely on digital solutions to provide the best possible customer experience.
How Changes in Distribution Affect In-Store Experiences
As focus shifts to delivering groceries and meals curbside, how are in-store or in-restaurant experiences affected? Some businesses get creative by offering flexible dining options (indoor vs outdoor), or grocery stores add more self-checkouts to eliminate long lines and decrease wait time.
Bars and lounges may be one of the only spheres not as negatively affected by the rise of curbside pickup and home delivery; there’s no substitute for a night out with friends no matter how well-stocked the home bar is.
The Retail Market
Some retailer chains do make an effort to source their food locally. Instead of relying on one supplier for all stores or restaurants located across the nation, they partner with local farmers. While it may take more planning, to coordinate with nearby farmers, it can benefit a business financially in the long run. Sourcing locally grown or raised food products decreases overhead costs related to food distribution because products aren’t traveling through time zones to get on the menu or in the produce aisle.
Food in the retail sphere can be divided into the following categories:
- Shelf Stable
More and more, retailers and restaurants are turning to local sources for seasonal items, or items with a shorter shelf life (meat, produce). It helps ensure freshness and reduces the negative impact on the environment.
Food Sold Retail vs Wholesale
When you purchase food at the farmer’s market, you’re most likely purchasing it at lower, wholesale prices because there’s no middle man. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture published a comparison of food that travels to a Chicago grocery wholesaler (referred to as a terminal market) versus food that travels to a farmers’ market.
Distance to Chicago Terminal Market vs Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
- Apples: 1,555 miles to Terminal Market vs 7 miles to Ferry Plaza
- Beans: 766 miles to Terminal Market vs 117 miles to Ferry Plaza
- Grapes: 2,143 miles to Terminal Market vs 134 miles to Ferry Plaza
- Lettuce: 2.055 miles to Terminal Market vs 102 miles to Ferry Plaza
- Peaches: 1,674 miles to Terminal Market vs 173 miles to Ferry Plaza
- Tomatoes: 1,369 miles to Terminal Market vs 117 miles to Ferry Plaza
- Winter Squash: 781 miles to Terminal Market vs 98 miles to Ferry Plaza
If we can shift to purchasing food locally rather than relying on imports, we can reduce fossil fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and have fresher food on our tables. This can seem like an expensive and time-consuming practice, but starting small is key.
Switching to Shopping Local for Food
Take advantage of farmers’ markets for fresh fruits and vegetables to get started. Once this becomes second nature, you can progress to canning and preserving the foods you buy so you can enjoy them year-round.
As you get to know the local sellers at markets in your community you can get recommendations for other food items; a farmer might know a good butcher who sells local meat, or who creates seasonings and spices locally. Perhaps you’ll also discover which local farmers supply retail stores and restaurants with goods from your community.