The Horrifying Reality of America’s Food Supply Chain

Actually, when you see the process of America’s food supply chain and understand that one major earthquake or other catastrophe can paralyze our highways, the system is frightening. We are so vulnerable to starvation at the drop of a hat. Whatever happened to growing and selling to the grocery stores locally?

The Horrifying Reality of America's Food Supply Chain 2

As we all know, the food that we buy in the grocery store isn’t exactly from the same area that we live or reside in. Actually, it’s kind of frightening when you understand that your state grows food, then ships it somewhere else, your state imports the same food from elsewhere and ships it to you. It seems very dangerous and inefficient to me. Plus, when/if a world disaster hits, and if it’s long term, states will have to develop new routes and connections involved with getting the food to the people. As it is now, everything is trucked-in to our stores from another country by using America’s food supply chain.

Megan Konar is an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois. She and her team put together an awe-inspiring map of America’s food supply chain showing exactly how food flows around the world and what it actually takes to get it to us. From Megan’s site: The Conversation

My team at the University of Illinois just developed the first high-resolution map of the U.S. food supply chain.

Our map is a comprehensive snapshot of all food flows between counties in the U.S. – grains, fruits and vegetables, animal feed, and processed food items.

To build the map, we brought together information from eight databases, including the Freight Analysis Framework from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which tracks where items are shipped around the country, and Port Trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows the international ports through which goods are traded.

We also released this information in a publicly available database. Read more…

The Conversation

America's food supply chain

What these maps reveal about America’s food supply chain:

1. Where your food comes from
Now, residents in each county can see how they are connected to all other counties in the country via food transfers. Overall, there are 9.5 million links between counties on our map.

All Americans, from urban to rural are connected through America’s food supply chain. Consumers all rely on distant producers; agricultural processing plants; food storage like grain silos and grocery stores; and food transportation systems.

For example, the map shows how a shipment of corn starts at a farm in Illinois, travels to a grain elevator in Iowa before heading to a feedlot in Kansas, and then travels in animal products being sent to grocery stores in Chicago.

2. Where the food hubs are
At 22 million tons of food, Los Angeles County received more food than any other county in 2012, our study year. It also shipped out the most of any county: almost 17 million tons.

California’s Fresno County and Stanislaus County are the next largest in America’s food supply chain, respectively. In fact, many of the counties that shipped and received the most food were located in California. This is due to the several large urban centers, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the productive Central Valley in California.

Megan Konar

Eating local means fresher food

When produce doesn’t travel across the country, or sometimes the world, its freshness means higher nutrient levels. Once produce is packaged its optimal nutritional level decreases, specifically some vitamins such as C, E, A and some B. There are other factors that come into play in America’s food supply chain, such as exposure to artificial lights and air, and temperature changes. Of course produce that has traveled through America’s food supply chain still has nutritional value, but produce consumed immediately after its harvest is not only healthier but tastier as well (ever compared a freshly picked strawberry to a grocery store one?). This is due to the fact that the fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen longer on their branches, vines, bushes, etc. rather than being picked early so as not to spoil during transportation and packaging. According to the University of Vermont, this is because produce that is destined for local markets is picked at its prime ripeness, meaning your food will not only be healthier but also taste better.

Eating local means seasonal

Eating local also means following the natural flow of the seasons if you’re eating whatever the closest farmers have to offer (such as picking up a CSA box). For ecologists, this means following the natural flow of diversity and discovering local varieties, which might not exist in increasingly uniform grocery stores because of America’s food supply chain. This certainly helps to avoid the issue of eating the same things all year round, which is not ideal for your health. In addition, Japanese research found that spinach harvested in the summer vs. the winter had three times more vitamin C. Additionally, food that is grown seasonally and close by might contain more nutrients that we specifically need at that point of the year. It’s very easy in our big, box store world to forget what foods we should be consuming at which points throughout the year, but finding a balance with what we eat and the seasons can benefit us as well as the planet.

Eating local means being engaged

Many of our current environmental and health issues are due to modern agriculture, and if we engage with our local, natural sources of food, we not only help out local producers, but help our own health. Modern food is packed with sugars, salt and unhealthy fats, all of which have been linked to a variety of diseases. Getting our food from local sources (ideas below), means having a lot more fresh produce on our hands.

Engaging with what has traditionally been grown in an area is becoming increasingly popular as folks as witnessed the inadequacy of America’s food supply chain. The website of the Decolonize Your Diet movement speaks of food as medicine; not just for the body, but for the soul as well. The site encourages eating the local, indigenous foods of an area in order to reconnect with culture and health. Good resources for indigenous eating may be found through their work.

In this same vain, the Guardian posted an article recently on the ability of indigenous diets to fight modern diseases. It explains that many micronutrients have been lost in the modern, processed way of eating, which are still present in local foods. Above and beyond the health benefits, such a shift could help bring humans closer to the Earth, and foster a more concrete link between consumers and producers. The story cites millet, spirulina, roots and tubers as regional foods grown in different parts of the world that contain disease-fighting micro-nutrients. In addition to the alternatives of indigenous crops to modern agriculture, wild foods also offer nutritional bonuses. And, when it comes to such nutrient-dense foods, it’s quality (not quantity) that matters, meaning that only a small amount of a wild food can contain large health benefits.

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