The cold infrastructure behind America’s food supply

Alexis Madrigal provides an overview of the cold storage that makes modern America’s food supply possible:

At least 70 percent of the food we eat each year passes through or is entirely dependent on the cold chain for its journey from farm to fork, including foods that, on the surface, seem unlikely candidates for refrigeration,” Twilley writes in introducing her show…

These systems, by design and necessity, exist away from the cities, and even when they’re within cities, away from where the people are. You don’t see them unless you work there, and if you work there, you generally don’t get to tell the stories of the landscape in the popular press.

To venture into infrastructural space is not just to leave the Beltway or the New York media world behind, but to come to know entirely different networks. The nodes on the map are different: Oakland and Richmond, not San Francisco; Long Beach and Hueneme, not LA; Newark and Wilmington, not New York.

In these geographies, the physical reasons people have long chosen certain locations retain their purchase: proximity to resources and markets, water access, transportation access, grid access. Take Allentown, Pennsylvania. It features a logistics hub “where U.S. Foods, Americold, Millard Refrigerated Services, Kraft, Ocean Spray, and others all maintain facilities,” thanks to its “location at the intersection of I-78, I-476, and several East Coast railway lines. It is also close to major urban markets in the north-east corridor–but not so close that the land is expensive.”…

My point here is that this is another America. And it’s neither the pastoral, wholesome family farm of Iowa political campaigns and Wendell Berry poems nor the dense Creative Class preserves where the nation’s bloggers and TV producers live. Almost no one tells the stories of these places.

It sounds like our current food supply is very dependent on several factors that get little attention. A distribution network that efficiently gets food from source to shelves. A transportation system, primarily trucks and railroad, that links this all together. An army of workers in both blue-collar and white-collar jobs that make this all possible. A geographic system/map that doesn’t line up with the global cities of the United States.

Another question to ask is whether it matters much if Americans know this tale of where their food travels. Some have powerfully argued yes in recent years, suggesting knowing this information and being able to make choices based on it is linked to sustainability and enjoyment. On the other hand, many Americans seem happily ignorant of the infrastructure that makes much of their food possible and only care if something goes wrong.

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