With modern logistics and a global supply chain, we can get almost any food from anywhere in the world, in our supermarkets. The supply chain spans from very local to the whole world. For most of us, all the thought we put into it is going to the supermarket and picking items off the shelf. It seems very simple, but behind the curtain it can take a lot to get there.
Food is generally brought into supermarkets and grocery stores by truck from distribution centers. Especially in the case of large scale chains like Walmart. They have 42 regional general merchandise distribution centers in the United States totaling 50.1 million square feet. One of them is in Lewiston, Maine (less than 1 hour away from Colby), it is just under 900,000 square feet and distributes to all of Northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, parts of Vermont and Maine. Each Walmart distribution center supplies on average 150 locations. At that scale, the food is sourced from all over the country and is the same at every location, to keep things consistent and safe. While Walmart has traditionally been an example of the polar opposite of locally sourced food, they have taken significant strides in the last decade to better comply with regulations and provide the freshest possible food to their customers. Now, they provide organic and food without GMOs and preservatives to appeal to customers that have concerns about the quality and safety of normal processed goods.
Here at Colby, the dining services company, Bon Appétit, tries to source as much food from as locally as possible. They have all their suppliers and their locations listed on their website. We get our milk from Baker Brook Farm in Gray, Maine, about 52 miles away. Our fresh produce like carrots or lettuce from several farms within a 20 mile radius.
One highlight I think sticks out is the provider of all beef and pork, which is the Cold Spring Ranch, about 34 miles from campus. The ranch is owned and operated by the Clark family, who pride themselves on owning over 600 acres of pastures, hayfields and woodlands in the mountains of Western Maine. Their beef is 100% grass fed and GMO free, they also meet strict animal welfare standards. They offer their beef and pork year round, by processing their animals weekly so that the product is always fresh and available. This kind of meat production is the best kind because it is the least processed and has had to travel the least distance to be put on your plate. While this is true on our campus, it is not true for the rest of the country.
If you haven’t had a chance to look at this map, I found it pretty interesting: https://colby.cafebonappetit.com/farm-to-fork/
Over the last 15 years, the US food import business has grown at an average of 6% each year. Now, it is an $140 billion dollar industry each year. Over 45% of US agricultural imports are horticulture products such as: fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, essential oils, flowers and hops. Another 20% consists of coffee, cocoa and rubber. Also, imports of vegetable oils, processed grain products, red meat and dairy products have increased significantly over the last decade. The two standout countries we import the most from are Canada and Mexico, then the EU comes after. The typical “American” diet consists of many different products that cannot be produced in the US. 100% of coffee, cocoa and spices, most of the fish and shellfish and 50% of our fresh fruits and fruit juices are imported. See the graphs from the USDA below that show how what kinds of food we import.
As an example, take coffee. Surveys have shown that 65% of Americans drink coffee regularly, making it the most popular beverage in the US. It’s an American staple and has been for generations, but coffee can’t be produced here, so it is imported from Latin America, South America or Asia. All the coffee sold in stores in the US may have been processed here in the US, but it originally is from another country, depending on the type of coffee bean. Coffee is now a $225 billion industry in the United States and is vitally important to millions of people, since consumers spent $74.2 billion on it in 2015. Also, over a million people work in the coffee industry in the US. So despite coffee being a product that cannot be locally sourced, it still makes up a decent sized portion of our economy.
The difference between global and local foods is that it takes a lot of effort, energy and cost to import huge amounts of any product. The idea of local vs. global food is that you minimize the amount of transportation and distance that a product has to travel in order to reach the customer. It is important also to understand that having foods from other places is a luxury available because of technologies that weren’t available 50 years ago. It allows us to have a more global food palette and I strongly believe that is a very positive thing.