Food chains

When my wife and I returned to our island home after Irma had come and gone, we sought out a local Publix supermarket on the mainland in the early evening. After passing two closed stores, we found one that was open. It was an eerie scene as many of the shelves were empty. Shoppers were looking desperately for anything they could find to replace the spoiled food residing in their home refrigerators due to several days without power. Meanwhile the shelves on a store on the island were well stocked with food but few shoppers. In talking with a manager, I learned that the main concern at the island store was identifying and pulling expired products. These two stores illustrate the problems of distribution. Business professors at MIT developed a game which demonstrates the difficulties grocery stores have with distribution using beer as their product. Distribution of food is much more difficult than it seems.

Fading from the news is the ongoing recovery and relief effort on Puerto Rico after being devastated by Irma and Maria. Although I have strong feelings about the situation in this US territory, I will attempt to put politics aside in this discussion. Two distinct but interlocking systems are slowly being  fixed to get Puerto Rico back on its feet—infrastructure and the supply chain. Infrastructure involves the physical structures needed for transport and storage of perishable foods such as roads, warehouses and the electric grid. Supply chains represent all the activities that occur between collection of raw materials and the market or processing plant. Food and water supplies arrived at the docks in San Juan shortly after Maria departed. Unfortunately, these items could not be moved to the people who needed them because many roads in and around the port of San Juan were impassable, and there were few drivers available to deliver the goods. Shelf-stable foods can wait; perishable foods and the people can’t wait.

There is name for players in the supply chain—the middlemen. For years the middleman has been characterized as the bad guy who skims money off the system he doesn’t deserve, robbing both the conumer and the grower. The truth is that middlemen in the supply chain are needed to get a raw food from farm to market or ingredients to the processing plant. Middlepersons are not just businesspersons. They represent everyone who is employed in that supply chain. This chain is made up of laborers who grow and pick the crop; work at packing facilities or processing plants; load, drive and unload trucks; stock the shelves and check out the groceries; and cook the food or wait on us in restaurants. It is true that Puerto Rico brings some additional problems as we learned that it is an island in the middle of the ocean, and it can’t be reached just by sending trucks across state lines. Many critics of the industrialized food system, though, have no appreciation for the middleperson.


Much of my professional life as a researcher in food science has been looking at the supply chain for fresh fruits and vegetables. The challenges faced by players in the supply chain have been described in greater detail in each subsequent edition of the book Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach. The supply chain for fresh produce begins in the fields with the growers who need labor to plant the crop and then tend to it in the fields prior to harvest. Although there have been attempts to automate picking fruits and vegetables in the field, most harvesting is still done by hand. Packing may be done directly in the field or loaded onto a vehicle and transported to a packinghouse. It is here that the crop is sorted, graded, washed, packed and loaded onto the truck for its destination. A load of a single fruit or vegetable is then usually shipped in trucks across country to a central warehouse where it will be stored until broken down into mixed loads for shipment directly to one or more individual grocery stores.

All along the way from field to the grocery store, business middlepersons need real people to perform these actions so the fresh produce available for purchase arrive in good shape. My research was directed at observing the tomato, peach or other fresh item as it traveled through the handling system. I also observed the people who made it happen. It is hard work for low pay by workers who have little power. Automation is an ever-present threat to these workers. I remember working with a warehouse in the middle of the chain that featured a very fancy automated sorter to separate individual tomatoes by color and size for uniformity before being shipped to stores and restaurants. I was giving a visiting Israeli scientist a tour of produce operations in Georgia and telling him about this impressive machine. We arrived at the warehouse only to see a number of human sorters on platforms lining both sides of the belt where the electronic sorter had been before. The machine was not providing the cost savings the business wanted. That incident was several years ago, and I expect tomato sorting and many other tasks are being automated during handling.

Those laborers who pick our fruits and vegetables, help get them to market, stock them in our supermarket and prepare or serve them to us in restaurants are mostly invisible and underappreciated. Our research team identified ways that a handling system could run more efficiently. Unfortunately, the player who needed to bear the costs by making improvements was usually not the player who reaped the benefits. We identified what we called the Point of Integration in each handling system with the power to force changes. Recntly, I took the opportunity to attend a local meeting and hear someone from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, made famous by the movie Food Chains, tell about their experiences. They found that growers did not have any power to raise worker pay and remain competitive in the tomato market. Instead, the workers targetted the buyers of major supermarket and fast-food chains, the powerbrokers of the system. It was with these buyers that the Coalition was able to negotiate a penny-a-pound Fair Food premium that goes directly to the worker. For more information on the plight of workers within the system I recommend the following books:


Numerous solutions to these problems have been advanced from increasing the minimum wage to blowing up the whole industrialized food system. The problem with many of these solutions is that they tend to assume a static system. Workers operate in a dynamic system where an action on their behalf elicits a counterreaction by individual managers such as the grower, truck company or restaurant owner. It seems to me that identifying pressure points in buying, handling and selling fresh produce is key to improving the lot of workers for the middleman. In many cases the power to make a difference from worker conditions to sustainability resides with the supermarkets. By developing ways that both workers and management can win is a more difficult, less visible but more sustainable solution to improving the lives of those who literally put food on our table.

The primary point of this article is to emphasize the importance of infrastructure and the supply chain in the availability of food. Ships or warehouses full of food and water are useless to a distressed population if there is no way to get those items to market. It is the middlepersons and the laborers who work for them who make it happen. Cut them out, and we descend into chaos. If the food in the ships or warehouses if perishable, then a major delay in distribution results in a major case of wasted food.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN—Go Easy on the added sugar

Next: Reimagining supermarkets

ALSO: I am scheduled to be interviewed on the Matt Townsend Show on BYU radio (Sirius XM radio channel 143) at 10:20 EST or so on Tuesday, November 7


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