Food’s a trip, Actually a Baker’s Dozen of Trips

By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

My first job, every Saturday from grade 7 to grade 10, was as a bicycle delivery boy for Joe Caruso’s grocery store in – I still groan at the memory – a hilly area of Scarboro. The job paid 50 cents an hour plus tips, so this is when I learned that working people tipped more generously than rich people – still a good backgrounder for any interpretation of modern neo-conservatism.

On average, our food makes 13 trips before it reaches our plates, according to food policy analyst Wayne Roberts. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

As the world turns, bike delivery jobs may be heading for a retro revival like vinyl records. They remain one of the best ways to handle the trickiest and thorniest of what delivery and logistics experts call – with a groan that reminds me of my hill-biking days – “the last mile.”

My trip backwards in time was occasioned by a two weekend assignment (for less pay than I made as a delivery boy) as the “food expert” for a dozen bold and brilliant designers-to-be working on a plan to reduce heavy traffic. The project—co-sponsored by Evergreen Foundation (recently reinvented to promote green cities), George Brown College’s Institute without Boundaries and the regional transportation giant, Metrolinx—will become a showpiece in a transit expo attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to Evergreen’s Brick Works next spring and summer.

To come up with bright new ideas, our team (one of ten)  worked in a “charette,” with a medley of designers unburdened by vested interests or formal training, several free-floating food producer and consumer groups, and me holding the reins on any runaway plans that got too wild.

I can’t say enough about how exhilarating it is to make food plans with a group of young people trying to solve a non-food problem—a broken transportation system that costs billions of dollars to operate, more billions in time and fuel lost to traffic jams, and cascading billions in environmental damage and traffic accidents.

I can’t spill any trade secrets, so wait for the transit expo this spring to see the end point. But the starting point alone is worth the price of admission. Seen with fresh eyes gazing at the food system from the outside, food is a trip. To be more precise, a typical food serving is the result of 13 trips.

This is something local food enthusiasts as well as transit planners need to wrestle with. Once food is redefined as a logistics enterprise with 13 frequently mindless commutes, the lack of mindfulness in the food system looms as a pretty sizable applecart in need of overturning.

To get a sense of the overturning that’s needed, think like an outsider in a traffic planning department who counts up these 13 trips knowing that they’re almost all two-way, with an empty return trip that almost doubles pollution and other costs for no benefit. To get a sense of the applecart, think like a food sector insider from either the government or private sector, who brags that what these trips deliver is “value added,” rather than “value-subtracted.”

Ta-da! For the first time, here are the 13 trips that deliver the goods for almost any North American or European meal.

Far-off fertilizer: The first trip results from pressure on farmers to save time and money by growing the same crop on the same land every year, without any break for the land to rest or be fertilized by animal manure. Artificial fertilizer has to be trucked from afar, usually from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Outside inputs: Trip 2 delivers other farm inputs—from seeds, animal feeds, antibiotics, pesticides and tractors – many of which were produced on farm in bygone days before hyper-specialization of farmers’ labor time.

Town trekkies: Trip 3 is the series that gets the farmer to a no-longer nearby village or town that has schools, hospitals, department stores and supermarkets. Huge highly-mechanized farms that make one farm family super-efficient in production are even more efficient at depopulating rural areas and killing off nearby service and community centers. (Lack of walk-able trips goes a long way to explaining why obesity is a bigger problem in rural than urban areas.)

Airline commuters:  Trip 4 flies in migrants from Central America or the Caribbean to pick fruit or tend greenhouses in Ontario and elsewhere. This trip subtracts the costs of decent wages, benefits and family companionship from the price of food.

Long-gone factories:  Since few foods are eaten unprocessed, most farmers produce foodstuffs rather than edible foods. Trip 5 takes these foodstuffs from farms to processors who will often make products with labels that seem to fit a chemistry set more than a food.  Farmers who try to avoid this trip by processing on-farm suffer tax penalties and red tape migraines.

Paper trail: Trip 6 gets materials to food packagers—let’s say pulp and paper from Canada to China, where paper coffee cups are manufactured for a major coffee chain, or bauxite from Australia or China to produce 609,000 tons of aluminum foil for food packages made in factories close to cheap electricity.

Packing it in: Trip 7 gets the package to the farmer or processor. Only a small portion of foods are sold without containers that identify and brand the owner, even a no-name owner. Think plastic or freezer bags from an Ontario factory to California strawberry producers, who will ship the frozen branded strawberries to Ontario in a later trip.

Depot bound: Trip 8 takes the food from processor to distributor—either “aggregators” who control the food pipeline by choke-holding this pivotal position, or warehouses of major food chains, which ship materials to one location, where data management and control are centralized. The single-order desk rules the supermarket roost, which explains why few chain stores can buy local food directly. Even raw unprocessed foods such as apples must go from farm to distributor, even if that means going from distributor back to store serving the community whence the apple was grown.

Keep on trucking: Trip 9 goes from distributor or warehouse to store, perhaps from one end of a region or country to another, perhaps back to the end of the region or country where the food originally came from.

Market drivers: Trip 10 brings customer, almost always by car, to supermarket, or to restaurants and cafeterias where almost half of all meals are eaten. Within a typical city, one-fifth of all car trips are food-related—a major factor in city-funded expenditures for road repair ($100 million a year is not out of line) and an important factor explaining why most North American cities lose a third of their space to paved roads and parking lots, which drives up costs of storm water management since paved-over land absorbs no rain ($100 million a year is not out of line here either).

The tipping point: Trip 11 goes from customer to landfill, carting the standard 40 percent of last week’s food purchases that were tossed out. When the garbage truck tips, 40 percent of all ten two-way food trips to this point become useless waste that can be beneficially eliminated. This is an obvious place to start efforts at reverse engineering or a more rational system. Instead of tipping garbage, we could tip the scales in reducing the one-third of global warming emissions that come from the broad food sector.

Meeting half-way (around the world): Trip 12 goes from customer blue box to recycler, much of it recycled at taxpayer expense. Much of the low-value plastics and multi-material schlock takes a slow boat to China, where weak pollution control and workplace safety practices reduce costs.

Last stop: Trip 13 is from customer to hospital, where preventable chronic diseases attributable to the food system—diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer are obvious examples—account for as many as half the treatments.

Only a fraction of food miles are used up to bring exotic or out-of-season foods to our tables.  It is the food system as a whole, not any specific food that causes all the trafficking in food. By the same token, localizing a food system that takes everyone for a ride requires more than shortening one trip from farm to fork – the hope of many locavores and 100 mile diet supporters.

Cities will have an important role to play—regulating food safety of small processors as if they were restaurants, for example, as is done in Toronto, thereby sparing artisanal producers from unnecessary red tape. Local governments that include town and farm populations can look at measures to eliminate penalties against on-farm processing.

Consumers—who deserve much of the credit for today’s food movement—can also be pro-active. Local-washing borrows the green-washing technique of blowing one grain of truth out of all proportion while distracting attention from other grains of truth.  I believe efforts to separate local from sustainable, as is common among government-funded agencies and chain stores,  amount to local-washing; as the tour de force of my designer friends suggests, the great majority of trips are due to unsustainable food producing practices. For all who can count to 13 and multiply that by 2, local and sustainable are almost always flip sides of the same coin.

Eat locally, think sustainably, we might say.

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