Untangling America’s food chains to ensure more equitable distribution of fresh produce

The battle lines are drawn: the food system is broken and needs to be reimagined and redeployed OR major repair is needed in our food chains. The coronavirus has revealed weaknesses in the way food is distributed in the country. Recently, Rachel Laudan declared that “that there is not ‘a’ food system but multiple cris-crossing supply chains, some connected, some not.” Supply chains are receiving much attention these days. With respect to food distribution, the supply chain is a series of steps from where the raw food material is obtained until its arrival at market or a processing plant. The clearest description I have read on a food system is from The Fate of Food:

“the vast network of local and international growers, processors, and distributors who feed seven and a half billion people worldwide.”

The question Laudan poses is should we overthrow the American food system or modify and fix it? As it turns out, I have been working on the revision of a book chapter on “Challenges in handling fresh fruits and vegetables” in the book Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach co-authored by Stan Prussia. Some aspects of the chapter directly relate to this debate, particularly with respect to fresh produce.

Criticism of the US food system. Perhaps the most notable critic of the American food system in the CoVID-19 era is Michael Pollan who expresses shock that we have two distinct food supply chains for fruits and vegetables. Well, his description is an oversimplification. There are many more than two distinct supply chains for distributing fresh items. Mass marketing and transcontinental shipment of produce to supermarkets and restaurant chains have been a part of the foodscape for a long time. The bulk—quick—cheap chain dominated by industrial farms was not sufficiently refined for fine diners so a local—organic—slow chain developed to match restaurants with small, local growers. These seed-to-table chains are usually mediated by an aggregator who accumulates fresh items from local growers and then distributes them daily to local restaurants. An alternate market for small, local growers is the numerous farmers markets scattered around both small towns and large cities.

A breakdown in the bulk—quick—cheap chain occurred when it could not supply enough fresh produce to satisfy the increased demand at grocery stores from increased numbers of people cooking at home. At the same time, the local—organic—slow chain broke down as there was no mechanism to feed the supermarkets used to receiving large shipments of produce daily in their warehouses for redistribution. When the restaurants shut down to anything but takeaway and farmers markets to pick-up orders, some local growers, aggregators, and grocery companies were sufficiently flexible to splice into existing chains. Ironically, those businesses who had developed the most efficient chains and had become top competitors in the market were the least prepared to modify their operations. Both sets of chains seem to be recovering, but more local chains will become even more dependent on the health of the restaurant industry.

Is the American food system a system? My colleague, Stan Prussia, is an authority on systems, and he would not consider what is called the American food system to be a system. The primary reference for his perspective is The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Our work, which goes back almost 40 years, applied systems thinking to the understanding of fresh fruits and vegetables from farm to market which then extended on into handling in the home as well as commercial sites like restaurants and institutions. The value of systems thinking is that various operations can be controlled to produce desired outcomes.

Our original concept was to trace a single crop such as a fresh peach from the farm to market, but that becomes complicated by different vendors entering at different points along the way breaking control of the item. Without control, complexities lead to unintended consequences. It is more fruitful to think of tracing the crop from a single grower as it wends its way through a supply chain to the end market. Along the way, however, various chains merge. A system is self-contained. Food distribution in this country involves a wide range of people and businesses that is anything but self-contained.

Taking a systems approach is what we did with fresh fruits and vegetables. At first, we followed turnip greens, southern peas, and pimiento peppers from the farm to the processing plant. Then, an economist, Jeff Jordan, joined the team and told us that we needed to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables as we cycled through tomatoes, peaches, and snap beans by tracing their journey from farm to packinghouse to market. Stan Prussia, an engineer, helped us employ systems thinking. Bill Hurst, an extension specialist, contributed by making contact with growers, processors, packing houses and distribution centers. My role was to place emphasis on food quality as defined by the ultimate consumer. Reuben Beverly, a horticulturist, covered the biological nature of the fruits and vegetables we were studying, particularly before harvest. Chi Thai, another engineer, provided mathematical modeling expertise.

bright red supermarket tomatoes
We followed tomatoes from the farm to the supermarket

By viewing the journey from farm to market instead of focusing on individual steps along the way, we uncovered some interesting insights. In addition to the flow of an item such as a load of tomatoes up the chain there was a counterflow of money back down the chain with suppliers early in the chain attempting to maximize their return while receivers later down the line looking to keep prices down. Unless the business at the end of the chain was willing to pay a premium price for higher quality, there was little incentive for growers and handlers earlier in the process to deliver a higher quality tomato. We also identified a problem within distribution we called latent damage where an operation early in the chain could induce damage such as a bruise that was not evident until later when “owned” by another business. It was difficult to identify the culprit in such damage or correct the problem when there was lack of coordination between steps.

One of our mentors, Brahm Verma, developed the concept of point of integration where tomatoes blended in with other chains of blueberries, carrots and a host of other fresh fruits and vegetables. At this point the tomatoes lose their individuality, and the owner becomes the arbiter of setting the price for each load. It was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who identified this principle (not related to anything we did), and each picker was able to demand and receive a penny a pound extra for the tomatoes they picked. In addition, we pinpointed the two most variable points in the chain as before harvest and after purchase. The chain from farm to market can be managed, particularly if links cooperate with each other. It is not clear, however, what preharvest factors affect quality and stability of fresh produce within the supply chain.

There are several variables during handling and distribution, but there are so many additional variables before harvest that no one, to our knowledge, has devised a systematic approach to the problem. Likewise, identifying the quality characteristics that consumers desire at point of purchase and at the point of consumption is difficult. We found that there is a great variation on quality requirement for fresh bananas which can rapidly move from green tips to brown spots rapidly after purchase.

Although two of us have retired, Wojciech Florkowski, another economist is leading editor of the fourth edition of Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach, for a 2021 publication. Nigel Banks, a visionary, has joined us as an author and editor contributing to an emphasis on sustainability and food waste. He distinguishes between food loss which occurs prior to reaching the market and food waste which makes it to the market but is thrown away either at the market or by the consumer. To improve sustainability both loss and waste must be minimized as the value of all inputs from planting of the seed to tossing uneaten produce into the waste bin are lost if the food is not consumed.

Along the way, we identified glitches in the system, collected data, published scientific journal articles and met with people in businesses and universities both at home and abroad. It is more likely that we were just ahead of our time than that we made a major impact on distribution patterns, but it was thrilling to be part of a major movement.   

Food chains – supply and value. Once an arcane concept only voiced by distributors of products, supply chains appear almost daily in our newsfeeds. A supply chain gets an item such as a fresh apple from growing location to point of sale with an emphasis on minimizing costs and prices. A value chain, however, differs from a supply chain by focusing on meeting needs of customer or ultimate consumer rather than on the lowest price. Such needs might be premium quality, sustainability, speed of delivery or some other valued attribute. Meeting those needs require specifications up and down the chain and can lead to a premium price. To be successful, a value chain must compensate participants at each link in the chain or owners of those links will look elsewhere to maximize return on investment.

mixed salad of lettuce, carrots, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and meat
Each item in this home-prepared salad is the product of multiple supply chains

Where do we go from here? First, our chains need to continue to evolve from supply to value chains by placing an emphasis on quality or other values as defined by the consumer. Early in our careers when introducing the concept of consumer-driven quality at scientific meetings, we were written off as out of touch. The focus was on the physiology of the fruit or vegetable and extending shelf life to prevent rotting before reaching the market. Now we see fresh produce being marketed as consumer goods rather than raw agricultural commodities. To increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in American diets this trend must continue. During this pandemic, chains should become more flexible to allow incorporation of local items within national market channels.

Second, fresh produce chains must become more sustainable. Such efforts must start on the farm and continue through to the market. Farm practices must be carefully monitored to improve yields while producing a quality that will be valued by the ultimate consumer. Crops must be harvested at the maturity level that will withstand the rigors of distribution in a form pleasing to the buyer and the eater. Fresh items are much more likely to be lost during growth, harvest and transport than processed products which have been deliberately preserved. Likewise, fresh fruits and vegetables are more likely to be wasted in the home than a processed food. The sooner in the chain a defective item can be culled the fewer resources are lost to affect overall sustainability.

Finally, a concerted effort must be made at both ends of the chain to improve equity. Wages, working conditions, and worker safety are often substandard for personnel involved in growing, picking, packing, loading, transporting, unloading, warehousing, and distributing of fresh items from farm to market. These employees are the true middlemen. They are underpaid and under-respected. On the other end, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited or denied to certain segments of the population. Extending chains into neighborhoods that do not have a supermarket or one that is substandard require alternative solutions that relate right back to chain reform.

Affordability is also a critical factor in accessibility as it hurts both the merchant and the buyer. Attempting to fix one end of the chain may cause problems on the other end as raising wages of workers in the chain can affect affordability of produce for sale in a food desert. Likewise, attempts to improve affordability can affect wages and working conditions within the chain. The situation becomes even more complex when the middlemen in these chains are also inhabitants of food deserts. Such modification of the “food system” to bring social justice will require cooperation and collaboration of natural scientists, businesses, and social scientists. A systems approach can identify weak links in chains or systemic flaws in distribution patterns and point to corrective action.

Next Week: 3 Things You Need to Know About Sustainable Food Innovation

 

3 thoughts on “Untangling America’s food chains to ensure more equitable distribution of fresh produce

  1. Fresh is an issue dear to this cook’s heart. So more power to anyone who wants to make improvements.

    Not every eater sees quality the same however. Since folks tend to favor what they are used to, it all depends. If you grew up eating seasonal beefsteak tomatoes in late summer at peak season, you will find industrial tomatoes mealy and tasteless. On the other hand, if you grew up expecting a thick slice of industrial tomato on your hero sandwich, you want the tomato to be there every time you want that hero and don’t want so much juiciness because it’s just messy.

    Fresh is always best when you can find it. Fresh is like a rainbow, it’s allusive and not always found in the same place. So it’s even more important to be open to surprises and keep a good eye out. But I applaud any system that can increase the chances of getting fresh to me in a more timely fashion.

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    1. Your points are well taken, Linn. Quality is an elusive term. We divided the concept up into purchase quality (those attributes important to the shopper when selecting an individual fruit or vegetable) and consumption quality (those attributes important during the eating experience). Among the fruits we studied were bananas and tomatoes. Bananas ripen quickly, so many purchasers are most likely to select fruit that are either at the more-green-than-yellow or more-yellow-than-green stages of ripeness. When actually consuming bananas, however, most consumers like them when there is no green coloration and before brown spots appear.

      Unfortunately, we found that yellow bananas pass through that stage in less than twelve hours! There is also a rapid increase in sweetness as they pass from green tips to brown spots. Consumers who unknowingly taste cut-up banana flesh from fruit with brown spots are pleasantly surprised by the sweetness. Some prefer that sweetness while others are turned off by the associated mushiness. Thus, there is a segment that rates taste over texture and another segment that rates texture over taste. With respect to consumption quality of fresh tomatoes there are at least two major segments—those who prefer fruit with high sugar and acid composition (taste) and those who are more drawn to distinctive volatile flavor components (odor). An ideal fresh tomato combines both sets of attributes.

      Fresh is an even more daunting term to assess as it has two distinctive connotations. Fresh fruits and vegetables may mean that they have never been cooked, frozen or otherwise processed OR it may mean the length of time between harvest and either consumption or preparation as part of a dish. It becomes more confusing as the terms are used interchangeably by cooks to distinguish an individual vegetable, for instance, to distinguish one from a processed counterpart or from one that has been harvested a few days earlier. Some authors would like information on the exact day and time a particular item was picked, but that is likely to result in more food waste without sufficient clarity analogous to the problems with beer “born on” dates and expiration dates on packaged foods. Harvest time also ignores such important information as to variety and maturity or ripeness at harvest.

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      1. Never thought about the two connotations for fresh before and yes I’m been guilty of using them interchangeably. One of my most popular blog posts was about the fresh broccoli I hand cut in the garden only to find it was full of worms. I wrote it to support the value of controlling pests and insects. My zealous colleagues love my approach.

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