Think about your favorite grocery store and mentally go through the aisles. Appreciate the products that are there. Now, as you pick your favorite fresh fruit or vegetable, imagine the story of where it was grown, how it was picked, and the events that took place to get it in the store.
I would not have been able to imagine this process if I was asked a few years ago. I was blind to the steps and unaware of the complexity of our food system. Today, we will discuss more generally how a piece of produce might end up at your store.
We have a few key players in this story:
1) The farmer
2) Post-harvest methods
3) A regional distribution center
4) The retailer (aka, the store or restaurant)
5) Finally, you – the consumer.
Meet the farmers and the decisions they must make:
- A product is chosen. The farmer must decide what will be grown and the variety of the product they are growing. Choosing the plant variety can depend on the plant’s tolerance to the farmer’s growing environment, temperature, time of year, location, resistance to disease, and type of production.
- Planting methods are executed. Plants have different seeding, transplanting, and growth cycle needs. Farmers must decide how they will address those needs based on cost, their production capabilities, technology of the farmers, and the intent to optimize the environment of the crops. They must determine the right time of year, soil conditions, plant spacing, irrigation methods, fertilization, and pesticide use.
- Harvesting. When the produce is ready to harvest, farmers must choose appropriate harvesting containers, equipment, and transportation to be efficient and clean.1 In most scenarios, the harvest containers get transported to a packinghouse where they will be prepared for the next step.
- After harvest, time is of the essence to make sure the produce is as fresh as possible. At the packinghouse or shed, the environment must be well controlled, and there are deliberate techniques to transfer the product into the facility.
- It is common for post-harvest facilities to prepare the produce to be transported to a processing center where it is inspected, cleaned, and assessed for quality. Often, preservation is emphasized through cooling measures, slow respiration, water-loss techniques, and/or the use of salt, sugar, or other chemical preservatives.2
- Farmers need to ensure the crop they are shipping is optimal maturity by the time it hits the store, not necessarily when it is picked. Destination location plays a role in the timing of the harvest. In addition, size, color, firmness/tenderness, days of bloom, heat accumulation, and other considerations must be taken in account to provide a product consumers would want to buy. 2
- Information is gathered on all the produce coming into to identify the grower/supplier, the date of the harvest, the field, the shift, and production records to be able to trace products when transported. 3
- Packaging must protect the items, be appealing for sale, and promote a clean environment to reduce contamination risk. When packaging, the products are put in bags, crates, baskets, cartons, bulk bins, hampers, and/or palletized containers. It is has been reported there are more than 1,500 different types of packing for produce in the United States.4
- Transportation is the next stop of the produce story. The products must be transported s through non-damaging and non-contaminating means. The transportation vehicle must be free of debris, maintain proper humidity and temperature levels, and loaded in a way that minimizes storage time and maximizes accessibility to get fresh-cut produce to the shelf as quickly as they can.5
Regional distribution centers:
- Distribution centers are locations where food is collected and redistributed to retailers, wholesalers, or directly to the consumers.These centers face the challenge of ensuring the food-safety regulations continue to be followed. Centers report organic regulation, ensure Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points compliance (HACCP is a systematic preventive approach required by the FDA and USDA to promote food safety in the production processes), and log food defense and vulnerability. Employee training and awareness programs are necessary to help keep the products up to industry standards.6
- The food industry requires consistent deliveries of the right products, in the right quantity, in the right condition, to the right place, at the right time, and for the right cost.7 With the regional distribution of food from all over the country and world, this can be a great challenge for ordering, processing, and transporting foods. Distribution centers means food products that are seasonal can still be present in the store. 7
- When food leaves the distribution centers, it most often travels to retailers or wholesalers. It has been reported that meals in the United States travel about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate. 8
Our journey is almost complete! Meet the retailers and the hero of our story – you, the consumer!
- Once delivered, it is the job of the retailer to inspect, display, and store produce to maintain shelf-life, while still promoting healthy standards. Stores order and reorder inventory to ensure they have the produce consumers want in stock and looking fresh.
- In-season produce may be purchased more locally, therefore bypassing distribution centers. This can be why you might see sales or signs for locally grown products in the summer, because they are more available to the retailer.
- Finally, the journey ends with you making your food purchase!
This is a very watered-down synopsis of the general path a food item might take to get to your plate. There are many players and stops involved to take produce from farm to table. This is why you may be hearing an increasing demand from consumers to be able to track and follow the supply chain of their food. With so many twists and turns, as a consumer it can be difficult to know the true quality of an item.
Efforts are being made to improve the efficiency and standards for food traceability in hopes of reducing contamination risks, promoting local sourcing and better farming practices, improving environmental awareness, reducing packing and transportation consequences, and more. The journey of food can be long, but being educated on the process can help direct our food choices – and may help to create the demand for a more direct and more efficient system.
- Aghazadeh, S.M. Improving Logistics Operations Across the Food Industry Supply Chain. Int. J. Contemp. Hosp. Manag. 2004, 16, 263–268.
About the Author:
Alex Uding, PT, DPT, PN1
Co-host of Know Better Live Best, Writer, Creator of Advancing Her (https://www.advancingher.com/)
Alex works with healthy and injured individuals alike, across the lifespan. She has special interest in orthopedic and sports rehab, women’s health, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and development of the female athlete. She is passionate about bridging the gap between rehabilitation and optimizing performance to promote a lifestyle of health and wellness through compassionate, person-centered care.
Alex loves to run, hike, and travel – visiting every national park is on the bucket list! She enjoys exploring new places, culture, food, music, and people. She is Chicago born and raised, but has lived all over the country. She loves hearing people’s story and what makes them tick.
Alex has a Doctorate of Physical Therapy, is Precision Nutrition Certified, and is a Strength and Performance Coach. She works as a Physical Therapist and Performance Coach at Momentum Physical Therapy in Milford, MA.