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.

In response to emergencies, companies seek out more distribution centers

A number of companies are now pursuing a new distribution center strategy in order to be better prepared for disasters and other disruptions:

Major storms like Hurricane Sandy and other unexpected events have prompted some companies to modify the popular just-in-time style of doing business, in which only small amounts of inventory are kept on hand, to fashion what is known as just-in-case management.v

The shift has led retailers and logistics companies to alter supply chains by adding distribution hubs, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate research firm in Washington. In turn, the hubs are creating real estate opportunities in markets on and off established distribution paths, including growth in markets outside the traditional seaport hubs on the East and West Coasts…

Just-in-case is a response to the vulnerability of just-in-time supply chains, said Rene Circ, CoStar’s director of industrial research. Since the 1990s, just-in-time has made sense for many companies looking to reduce the cost of keeping large inventories on hand. Technology enabled retailers and manufacturers to closely track and ship items to replace merchandise sold or components consumed in production…

The tendency toward numerous distribution facilities runs contrary to a strategy that was common just after the recession, when some companies sought efficiency by consolidating warehouse operations, according to Bob Martie, executive vice president for the New Jersey region at Colliers International, a real estate service provider.

Consumers may not pay much attention to this distribution chains. In fact, they may only really notice them when major events disrupt them. However, the distribution system is incredibly important for the American consumer economy. The reason products are on the shelves when consumers want them is due to this. Companies argue more efficient systems help them keep costs down. Better planning can reduce truck traffic on local roads.

This article adds another twist to the distribution center story: there is money to be made in distribution center real estate. Perhaps quite a bit of money.