Food Movers: Staple or Delicacy, It’s in the Can

Food Movers: Staple or Delicacy, It’s in the Can

What do you need in a bomb shelter? Water, flashlights, blankets, a radio and, of course, canned food.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, many a family fallout shelter was stocked with canned food, including Multi-Purpose Food (MPF), a low-cost, shelf-stable, protein- and nutrient-rich food supplement manufactured by General Mills to be consumed “in case of emergency or disaster.” MPF, first conceived in the 1940s as a remedy for widespread hunger in postwar Europe, became a symbol of Cold War preparedness.

Since the mid-20th century, canned food has been a staple of the American diet. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, the average American household has 24 cans of food in their pantry. And while the technology of canned food focuses on creating a shelf-stable product, the significance of canned food in food culture is anything but fixed.

For as long as people have moved food from its production location to market, packaging has played a key role, from product durability and trade efficiency to product differentiation and marketing. Canned food — durable, stackable and completely sealed — has transformed multiple links along the food supply chain since its first appearance nearly 250 years ago. Military campaigns, with their widely distributed provisioning requirements, have often led to innovations in the processing, packaging and distribution of food, particularly sources of protein. Credit goes to the Dutch Navy for being the first, in the late 18th century, to package hot beef covered with hot fat in tinned iron canisters.

The first to publish on the process of canning — preserving food in sealed containers — was Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809, writing about a technique using glass containers. Fellow Frenchman Phillipe de Girard devised a canning process using tin and collaborated with Englishman Peter Durand, who obtained a patent in 1810. Durand promptly sold the patent to the British company Donkin, Hall and Gamble, which provided meat in tinned wrought-iron cans for the British Army and Royal Navy.


Now a pantry staple, canned food was initially conceived for use beyond a conventional kitchen. Metal cans could function as a serving container and, in a pinch, be heated over open flame. The sealed and opaque quality of the container prevented oxygen and light from breaking down food and protected it from contamination, thereby extending the product’s shelf life. Advances in metallurgy eventually helped cans become the cost-effective, disposable food containers now commonplace in kitchens and pantries.


a low-cost, shelf-stable, protein- and nutrient-rich product made by General Mills for use in “emergency or disaster.”

Cans are easily stacked and difficult to destroy, criteria that make them indispensible to military food supply chains. Contents can be cooked right inside the can, offering the prospect of a warm meal to anyone with access to a flame.

Three types of metals are now commonly used for cans. Tinplate is made by coating steel with a thin layer of tin, which is highly corrosion resistant. Cans made of aluminum — corrosion resistant and highly malleable — can be fabricated from two rather than three pieces. Electrolytic chromium-coated steel (ECCS, also known as tin-free steel), introduced in the 1960s to respond to fluctuations in the supply and cost of tin, has a higher melting point than tinplate but is less resistant to corrosion.

As the fabrication processes for rolling, shaping, soldering and welding metal improved, so did cans. They became thinner and more durable. Sealing methods evolved, too — some early cans were soldered closed with lead. A firmer understanding of microorganisms also has changed canning practices. Botulism from commercially produced canned food is now a rarity. Sustained high heat in processing kills spores of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium, which can otherwise survive in low-oxygen environments.

Opening metal cans initially required brute force and assumed the availability of heavy tools. The first metal can openers weren’t patented until the 1850s — some 50 years after the container itself came into use. Subsequently, market expansion led to the engineering of new opening strategies, which in turn made cans increasingly popular. Key-wind opening systems, which include a key with which to pull away a strip of metal (usually on the top of a can or tin), and later, easy-open ring tabs, made for portable, pocket-sized, accessory-free foodstuffs.

Like other products now considered relatively common, such as chocolate, 19th-century canned food took on special significance for a growing middle class. Take, for instance, ready-to-eat seafood “delicacies.” Comparable to predecessors such as salt cod and pickled herring, seafood cooked (or smoked) and packed in cans or tins offered a way to expand the market for seafood harvested in a specific location.

Canned sardines are but one example of a product that emerged as a delicacy and then became a crucial wartime ration during the two world wars. At its peak in 1939, the central California fishery associated with Cannery Row in Monterey landed 460,000 tons of sardines for the year. Today, canned sardines and anchovies, as well as other canned seafood products, cover a broad market range, from in-house brands for major supermarket chains to restaurants offering carefully selected tinned fish delicacies.

Cans have come a long way — evolving from opaque metal vessels to the TruVue clear plastic can, a kind of jar hybrid.

Before canned food, groceries were full-service stores, where grocers measured and gathered your order together. Prepackaged cans, with labels as built-in advertising, enabled consumers to choose and pick up goods themselves.

In 1917, the Piggly Wiggly market chain opened the first self-service grocery in Memphis, moving cans out from behind the counter into displays, and then shelves. This image is from the mid-1950s.


Food science and packaging technology created canned food, but grocers introduced it to the American household. Canned food transformed the role of grocers as well as the design of stores. As a prepackaged good of consistent weight, with labels as built-in advertising, canned food could practically sell itself. In 1917, the Piggly Wiggly market chain opened the first self-service grocery in Memphis, moving cans out from behind the counter into displays, and then shelves, where consumers could pick up cans, read labels and put them into carts. After World War II, the housing boom, the expansion of supermarkets, the practice of driving to shop for groceries, and the greater number of women working outside the home all helped normalize canned food as part of the modern American diet.

Artful labeling and package design is an integral part of branding, particularly for products sold in opaque containers. The rounded corners of rectangular metal tins of fish are practical, as well as emblematic of product contents. Streamlined form and graphic design evoke a sense of efficiency. Many original label motifs persist as recognizable brands today. In 1962, Andy Warhol painted the first of his Campbell’s cans series — 32 paintings that represent each offering in the Campbell’s brand — elevating the Campbell’s soup can into Pop Art.

The most money ever paid for a can of soup was $11.7 million for Andy Warhol’s Small Tom Campbell Soup Can (Torn Pepper Pot), one of 32 paintings in his soup can series, first exhibited in 1962.


In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) requiring all packaged food to list nutritional information relative to Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA). For the first time, consumers could compare the nutritional content of foods before buying them. Since then, processing improvements have enabled the use of fewer preservatives and increased nutrient retention. Nutrition research has also been important, for instance, in clarifying that canned fruits and vegetables do not make up a major source of sodium in the American adult diet.

For many people, canned food is a more nutritious choice than other food options, especially when accounting for seasonal availability. New packaging technologies — such as bisphenol A (BPA)–free see-through plastic cans now coming on the market — prompt the question: Does being able to see what’s in the can ensure that it is fresh, flavorful and healthy? The market will decide.

From newfangled packaging for military rations to convenience-food wonder for postwar households, the simple can ensured that foods grown or produced in one location could safely be consumed many hundreds of miles away. And while its status may have ebbed and flowed — from nifty new technology to cheap holder of less-than-fresh ingredients, and back to retro packaging of exotic delicacies — canned food remains a staple for pantries and fallout shelters the world over.

Need a refresher on how to play Kick the Can? Check out this helpful video.

Food Movers: Robots as Farmhands

Food Movers: Robots as Farmhands

Every day there’s a new story about robot bartenders on Carnival Cruise Lines or Domino’s Pizza delivery pods trolling the streets in Europe. For now these are mainly stunt-bots, more public relations than practical. Yet there are already many kinds of robots at work in our existing food supply, albeit models slightly more mundane.

Whether robots (and their engineers) will totally replace regular workers is still up for grabs, but in truth bots will soon be everywhere in the supply chain: Packing and warehousing, farming, food processing and, yes, even hamburger flipping and order taking.

This is the first in a series on food bots, starting with a deeper dive into three cases where bots have taken over some of the dreariest jobs in mass production — repetitive, physically stressful, low-paying, dead-end, sometimes dangerous — that many humans would rather not do.

Lexicon Icon 


a device or piece of software that can execute commands or perform routine tasks either automatically or with minimal human intervention.


A Dutch dairy technology company called Lely makes Vector, a battery-powered feed bot that looks like a slow-moving escapee from the teacup ride at a state fair. Its speed belies its benefit to a working dairy barn: Consider that a cow can eat for six hours per day, and dairies feed hundreds of cows. Vector uses lasers, ultrasound sensors and metal guides to keep on track as it slowly scoots around, distributing feed, and then plugs into a docking station to recharge during downtime. Vector re-ups with silage — aka the mix of grasses, corn, sorghum and other grains dairy cows need for good-tasting milk — using a laser-assisted claw that serves up the proper proportions. (Watch the Vector do its job.)

Inside the robot’s 600-kilogram basin is a mixer arm, which automatically starts to blend different types of food together as soon as they hit the bowl. The system can prepare different formulas based on which groups of cows Vector needs to feed.

The constant spinning of the robot’s “skirt” brushes feed up along the open gates of a cattle barn, where the cows can easily get to it. The robot glides around until its laser finds a spot low or empty of feed; a sliding door rises up and feed settles out.


One of the more common robotic technologies used in the food industry is “pick and place,” which is exactly what it sounds like. These robots move things from one place to another with lightning-fast speed. They’re also making basic decisions, thanks to digital cameras and other tools that let the robots “see.” As things come down a conveyor belt, for example, robots rotate and place items into the proper packages, or — with the addition of special tools — score bread loaves, decorate cakes and swish sauce across pizzas (watch it sauce pizza). Many work something like ABB Robotics’ IRB 360 FlexPicker, which hangs from above and look like a giant daddy longlegs. Skinny metal arms triangulate to pack cookies, beers, cherry tomatoes, beef jerky, pancakes or — with some heavy-duty models — even boxes or pallets.

The bot “sees” using mounted cameras connected through network software, which means it can find objects when they’re overlapping and in random positions. The “hands” can be suction pads, “fingers” or special tools for slicing or spreading.

Pick-and-place robots handle more than 15 pounds and can relocate things up to five feet, making their moves in less than a second.


More advanced robots work by combining the sensor technology used above — cameras, 3-D mapping and digital “vision” — to execute more complex actions. A handful of companies make robot systems that can process meat, for example, using 3-D scanners or X-rays to map the bone placement of pork sides or lamb carcasses. The robot arms — its fingers would be the knives — react within seconds to make the right cuts. More mobile versions of these systems are also applied to farming: In California, Blue River Technology’s LettuceBot uses computer vision to see fields as it crawls them, perfectly thinning lettuce starts in vast fields (watch it work). Other farmbots include Hortibot, which can see weeds and treat them, a RowBot made for dense cornfields and an Agrobot that travels down a raised bed of strawberries scanning each plant and harvesting only the ripe, red fruits.

The LettuceBot attaches to an ordinary tractor, then uses camera systems to see plants in 3-D as they roll by. It picks out which to thin and which to keep in less than a second. Blue River Technology uses the term “see and spray,” as in the bot sees the plants in a field and precisely sprays only the lettuce plants to be thinned. The LettuceBot processes thousands of plants per minute with an accuracy of a quarter of an inch, says the company. Most people rent them by the acre for the vast lettuce farms of California and Arizona.

Food Movers: Lock, Stock and Barges

Food Movers: Lock, Stock and Barges

Growing up playing in the alluvial soil of farms along the Mississippi River, I gleaned a vague notion of the importance of barges. These flat-bottomed, square-ended boats — whether towed, pushed or self-propelled — are used primarily to haul cargo. My granddad owned a small red and white one that was rusty around the edges. He used it to transport tractors, farm supplies and crops back and forth from his island farm in the Mississippi River.

As a youngster, I often visited Lock & Dam 24 in Clarksville, Missouri, to watch the low-slung hopper barges loaded with Midwestern grain travel through the locks with the help of towboats. Contrary to their name, the towboats gently push — rather than pull — the barges into the lock, a 110-foot-wide and 600-foot-long concrete chamber built between the riverbank and the dam. Locks, along with dams, create a step-like system that helps vessels navigate the changing elevations of the river.

There are many types of barges: A dredging barge is basically a clamshell bucket excavator on a floating platform. In China’s Grand Canal, self-propelled barges sport a cabin and motor at the back. Decades ago, sail-powered Thames barges plied England’s coasts and rivers. Barges are even used as ocean-going landing pads for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

But the hopper barge that has become integral to the modern food system, especially in the United States, is a 200-foot-long, 35-foot-wide, 13-foot-deep boat with a large fiberglass cover. These barges are perfect for transporting bulk, dry cargo like grain or coal. They have no engines. Instead, they are designed to be lashed together with a web of steel cables into groups of two to 70 barges, known as tows, and pushed by a single towboat.

Towboats vary in size depending on how many barges they will be pushing and how and where they will be operating. Most are diesel-fueled and include a pilothouse that rises three to four stories above the deck, a kitchen, and quarters that house a crew of eight to 10 people. The average crew includes a captain and a pilot who alternate six-hour shifts in the pilothouse, a cook, a mate, four deckhands and an engineer. Crews serve 28-day stints, usually taking a four-week break before returning to the river.


Hopper barges haul corn, soy, wheat, fertilizer and other bulk dry goods, primarily on the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers. But they don’t travel alone. The standard tow on the Upper Mississippi is 15 barges, or five rows of three barges abreast, a bundled mass of vehicles that’s too long to go through the lock at one time.

The solution? Unbundle. Once in the lock, the first three rows of barges are disconnected. After the gates close on a southbound tow, the emptying valve under the lock opens. The water and thousands of tons of metal and cargo descend 15 feet. The process repeats for the towboat and remaining barges.

Each of those 15 barges can carry between 1,500 and 1,750 tons of dry cargo — enough wheat to bake 2.5 million loaves of bread, or one loaf for every person in Houston. A standard 15-barge tow can haul enough wheat to fill 240 railcars or 1,050 trucks, enough to provide a loaf of bread for every resident of New York, New Jersey and Virginia combined. But the wheat on the barges steaming down the Mississippi is likely bound for Europe or Asia, rather than New York.


Each barge can carry between 1,500 and 1,750 tons of dry cargo — enough wheat to bake 2.5 million loaves of bread, or one loaf for every person in Houston. A standard 15-barge tow can haul enough wheat to fill 240 railcars or 1,050 trucks, enough to provide a loaf of bread for every resident of New York, New Jersey and Virginia combined.

Examples of tow configurations, pushed by a single. A 15-barge tow is standard on the Lower Mississippi River. Click the image to enlarge.

The Western River System, including the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers, has been the main conduit for Midwestern crops to travel to international ports in the Gulf of Mexico for export.


Most of the grain grown and transported in the U.S. is used domestically. Of the 480,799,000 tons of grain shipped in the U.S. in 2013, some 114,843,000 tons — 24 percent — was exported, while the remaining 365,956,000 tons remained in the States. Since 1978, the amount of grain transported in the U.S. has steadily increased from about 250 million tons in 1978 to a peak of just over 500 million tons in 2010. But the amount exported has remained steady. In 1978, domestic and export grain was almost evenly split at 125 million tons each. Increased domestic use has been driven by several factors including a growing U.S. population, ethanol producers’ greater demand for corn, and more consumption of grain-fed livestock. At the same time, demand for U.S. exports has been held in check by increased grain production in Brazil, Russia, Canada and the European Union.

In 2013, barges only transported 1 percent of grain used domestically, while trains transported 21 percent and trucks hauled the remaining 78 percent. However, barges shipped 45 percent of U.S. grain bound for foreign markets. Though 2013 marked one of the slower years for grain exports, since 1998 grain exports have remained fairly steady, which is helping keep barge traffic afloat.

Though barges emit fewer greenhouse gases and are more fuel efficient than trains or trucks — barges can move a ton of cargo 647 miles per gallon of fuel while that same gallon will move a ton of cargo 477 miles via train and only 145 miles by truck — barges are confined to waterways wide, deep and regulated enough to handle large commercial tows. These geographical restrictions limit barges’ usefulness in transporting grain to domestic markets. However, it makes them ideal for moving large amounts of grain from Midwestern farms to international ports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. For years, barges cruising the Western River System (the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio Rivers) have made it possible for Midwestern farmers like my granddad to help feed the world and make a decent living, most years.

Barges: A Long Legacy

The often-unseen modern barge is a key ingredient of our modern food system. But barges have been a foundational element of modern society for hundreds of years. In the 1400s, an estimated 12,000 grain barges traveled China’s 1,104-mile Grand Canal, which at that time was nearly 1,000 years old.

The Grand Canal of China

Copyright: © Vincent Ko Hon Chiu. Photo by: Vincent Ko Hon Chiu

Those barges helped transform China into one of the world’s leading civilizations, transporting the rice, wheat, produce, salt and vinegar that fed the empire while fostering cultural exchange between China’s regional styles of cooking.

In 1666, French King Louis XIV authorized work to begin on the Canal du Midi, a waterway designed to transport wheat from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. As was the case with many early canals, men or pack animals towed the barges — which is why the boats that now push barges are called towboats — loaded with wine and wheat that enriched the merchants of southern France. This canal project helped inspire a boom in 18th-century British canal building, an endeavor that became the backbone of the industrial revolution.

Old map of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.

Old map of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.

Across the Atlantic, the young American republic, hemmed in by the Appalachians, needed to find routes westward. Seeing an opportunity, New York capitalized on a gap in the mountains, created by the Mohawk River, and in 1817 began construction on the 363-mile Erie Canal. After the canal opened in 1825, barges were towed by pack animals that trod packed-dirt paths lining the canal’s shore. These barges carried both cargo bound for New York City and passengers heading west — in less than half the time it took to travel the route by wagon and at a tenth of the cost. These efficiencies revolutionized the U.S., transforming New York City into the nation’s leading center of commerce and manufacturing.

The canal made New York the second port, after New Orleans, with an all-water route to the young nation’s interior, opening the West to the eastern seaboard. People and goods manufactured in the East could easily, by early 19th-century standards, travel to the Midwest and start settling there. By 1836, settlers shipped 369,000 barrels of grain back East. Some of their descendants would eventually use barges on the Mississippi to transport grain and other goods to international markets.

Barges may be humble flat-bottomed boats, but as a kid watching them steam up and down the Mississippi I was right to be impressed. They not only helped my granddad manage one of his farms but also helped him and other U.S. farmers transport their crops to countries around the world. Barges have for centuries provided the transportation infrastructure for feeding millions and nurturing modern civilization. 

Food Movers: Beasts of Burden

Food Movers: Beasts of Burden

In the United States, we are accustomed to thinking of draft animals as relics of the pre-combustion engine past or, at historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, as nostalgic attractions.

But draft animals remain ubiquitous in other parts of the world as central participants in food economies, both as food products themselves and as power to move agricultural products from fields to markets.

In areas of the world where roads accommodate hooves better than wheels and the expertise to maintain and repair motorized vehicles is scarce, pack animals are the most economically efficient tool to move food products to the market to maximize profits for producers. Some draft animals are likely to be used as food once their ability to provide labor diminishes, thus filling in multiple links in the chain of food production, distribution and consumption.

Camels at the Birqash Camel Market outside Cairo, Egypt. Camels arrive on foot from the Sudan, live meat on the hoof. Thousands of camels head to market to be auctioned. Colorful markings indicate important market information — a kind of bar code for dromedaries.

In China’s Gobi desert, carts pulled by donkeys carry every sort of food imaginable, from fresh meat to wheat and other grasses. Crops are harvested by hand reaping; this woman is hustling off the morning’s wheat in the cool shadows of an olive grove.

This trend is relatively recent in some parts of the world. Animal power was introduced into subsistence agricultural systems across sub-Saharan Africa in just the last 100 years and facilitated a transition to commercial agriculture. In West Africa, for example, a 2005 regional report by agricultural scientists encouraged farm owners to incorporate more livestock power, or “animal traction,” into their farming practices to offset growing wage costs for human farm labor.

The livestock market outside Kashgar, China, sits on the ancient Silk Road. Donkeys and mules are bought and sold to transport other animals purchased for meat. The sure-footed animals can deliver food where no trucks or cars can pass.

Gradually, gas-powered vehicles are replacing the donkeys, able to take dozens of animals at one time from the market to local slaughterhouses.

Some parts of the world that primarily use draft animals for food transport are the same places that record the oldest evidence of livestock domestication. The American Museum of Natural History reports that cattle and equids were domesticated for draft use between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago in what is now Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, traditional draft livestock systems in these regions now exist in parallel with a growing turn to industrial farming in today’s globalized economy.

The transition to industrial farming in the early 20th century in the U.S. and Europe replaced animal traction with tractors. But today, in regions that continue to use animal labor, the same transition may merit further consideration due to the role fossil fuels play in climate change. While this shift in attitude may stall transition from animal to engine in some parts of the world, the transition from animal to machine labor could still happen, but the machines may run on different fuels.

Food Movers: Behind the Wheel

Food Movers: Behind the Wheel

Annette Womack gets to work at 7 a.m. and clocks in at the Giant Food distribution center in Jessup, Maryland.

Thanks to her seniority with the company — she’s worked for Giant Food for 21 years — she’s got first pick of the daily delivery routes. She chooses a long round trip to Virginia, her home state, and heads out to check her rig.

Womack is one of the people behind the scenes of the nation’s food supply chain. Without her and all the folks driving those ubiquitous 18-wheelers moving food from farm to distribution center to store, grocery shelves would be depleted within a couple of days.

Womack is a petite blonde, with a snappy southern twang and a sweet-as-pie disposition. When she first started driving 30 years ago, her tractor (the cab part of a tractor-trailer truck) had to be specially fitted with blocks velcroed to the pedals to ensure her feet could reach them.

While the cabs are more accommodating now than when she first hit the road — thanks to reachable pedals, air conditioning and computers that track routes, drive times and inventory — some things have gotten worse: namely, traffic.

“There is no sweet spot anymore,” Womack says. “I get it in the morning, and then I get it in the afternoon. I do a whole lot of sitting. Patience is a virtue.” With all the traffic comes a lot of other frustrated drivers. But Womack looks for the good in those sharing her roads. “When one person out of 20 waves when you let them over, then that makes up for all the ones who just took the space” — i.e., cut her off — “without waiting to be invited.”

Read more about Annette and her “sister” drivers.

Womack is one of the top drivers in an industry where just 6 percent of drivers are women. She’s been driving for 30 years and was named Maryland Truck Driver of the Year in 2015, the first time a woman took home that award in the 80-year history of the Maryland Motor Truck Association.

Her unflinching commitment to safety is one of the things Womack is known for. At Giant Food, where the company makes about 1,100 deliveries per week and drivers cover more than 11 million miles per year, she trains new drivers in the art of navigating narrow urban streets in and around Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

“It’s really overwhelming,” she admits. Low-hanging branches on tree-lined D.C. streets may offer shade to pedestrians, but they’re perilous for truckers. “We have to worry about what I call ‘can-opening’ the top of a trailer because the limbs are too low,” she says. “Sometimes people give standing ovations in cities because they’ll stand there and watch you maneuver your trailer into a hole with about two inches on each side. You just want to give yourself a pat on the back because you can’t believe you did it.”

To help new drivers, Womack took it upon herself to write a route book for all 169 Giant Food stores, complete with diagrams, maps and information about the most efficient ways to reach the stores and how to get into tight loading zones. “It took hundreds and hundreds of hours, pasting and cutting the old-school way, with toothpicks and glue and little bitty arrows,” she says. “But it’s just about published, and I’m so excited for the new folks to use it.”

As a transporter of food products, Womack is also vigilant about her cargo. When she’s driving a refrigerated trailer — aka, a “reefer” — she checks and double-checks the temperature settings, ensuring she has a well-functioning refrigerator and enough fuel to keep it cold for the duration of the trip.

“You need that temperature to be at 35 degrees, and you need that refrigerator to work properly,” she says. “If it doesn’t, you can lose $40,000 worth of merchandise,” a catastrophe Womack has never experienced in her 1.7-million-mile career.

The importance she places on safety extends to those with whom she shares the road. When driving in the rain and snow, she takes it extra slow. “If you take it for granted,” she says, “things happen.” More than once she has stopped to lend a hand. One time, a young couple driving a big U-Haul truck had pulled to the side of the road, the husband signaling for help because his brakes were on fire, a result of so much stopping in heavy traffic.

“I pulled up behind them and grabbed the fire extinguisher and put out the fire,” she recalls. “And then I got back in my truck and went on my way.” Giant Food recognized Womack for that act of service, just one in a long career with many such stories. “We can help people,” she says. “As drivers, we can do more.”

She knows the important role truckers play in ensuring that fresh foods and other goods are available to American shoppers when and where they want them. Womack and other drivers doing daily deliveries for Giant Food are “local” drivers, beginning and ending their shifts each day at their home domicile (the place where the trailers sleep at night). Other truckers are out on the road for days and weeks at a time, bringing things like produce from California to Giant’s Maryland distribution centers.

“They’re the meat and bones of getting whatever you want to your house,” she says. “If one day the big trucks stop rolling for two days, we’ll all be hurting.”

Eleven hours after it began, with a trip to Virginia and back completed, Womack heads home for the evening. Then it’s back tomorrow to hit the road again.

To help new Giant Food drivers, Womack wrote a route book for all 169 stores, with detailed directions and diagrams about how to maneuver into tight spots. Image: courtesy Annette Womack.

Food Movers: The Secret Evolution of the Pizza Box

Food Movers: The Secret Evolution of the Pizza Box

No other paper product evokes such hunger. The warm feeling of a pizza box on your lap as you copilot the family car makes anticipation peak for most 10-year-olds.

The mere sight of one — or even better, a stack of boxes — hints at an impending celebration. It may be the only piece of cardboard that makes a mouth water. The pizza box is one of those everyday items that seems ever unchanged, a constant in food transportation. But its technology has quietly evolved while most of us have remained distracted by the pie protected within. Upon closer inspection, the pizza box reveals an unseen story of the sometimes conflicting relationship between a package and the food it contains.

Ordering Out Is In

Although pizza boxes didn’t become mainstream until a decade after World War II, early reports of the use of pizza boxes go back to the 1930s. Prior to that, flat paper bags served as the first transportation vessels for American pizzas, like the paper that wrapped around their Italian counterparts. Back in Italy, a pizza was much smaller than it is in most of the world today — about the size of a tortilla — because it was intended for consumption by a single person. It was a street food consumed by peasants and never needed much in the way of packaging. Pizza’s move to America in the early 20th century, brought by a huge influx in Italian immigrants, greatly expanded the food’s market and led to a need for larger packaging.

The postwar boom of the 1950s convinced many Americans to move from urban areas to the suburbs, where they learned to appreciate the growing convenience-food industry. Frozen TV dinners and Chinese takeout began as a novelty but soon became part of families’ weekly dinner routine. The shape and customizability of pizza made it a perfect addition to the mobile food trend. As pizzeria orders increased, so did the need to stack multiple pies. The solution required ditching the flat paper bag in favor of a more rigid container. Early examples began as modified bakery boxes but came into their own as paperboard pizza boxes. This material, still in use today, is made from compressed paper about as thick as cardstock.

While this design does a decent job of housing the pizza as it travels from point A to point B, it has some shortcomings. First, the printing on these boxes is rather simplistic and inaccurate. Printer rollers don’t get much cushioning from thin paperboard, so ink tends to smudge. Second, and functionally more important, the box’s walls tend to buckle and gap, even without a pizza inside. Just imagine what happens when the box is loaded with a hot, steaming pie. Add to that the lack of structural integrity inherent in thin paperboard: It doesn’t take much weight to collapse the lid, pushing it into direct contact with the pizza itself. (You’ve probably seen those tiny, white plastic “dollhouse tables” inside the box — that’s the Package Saver, invented by Long Islander Carmela Vitale in the mid-1980s. The box wasn’t good enough on its own; it needed some support to get the job done.)


was invented and patented by Carmela Vitale, whose device has saved the molten toppings of countless pizzas since 1985.

The GreenBox

It might look like a standard corrugated pizza box, but the GreenBox is designed to break down for two secondary uses. The lid has a pair of crossed perforations that allow it to transform into four plates. When you’ve had your fill, the base folds over itself to create a low-profile take-out container for your leftovers.

Corrugation Nation

By the late 1960s, the American pizza industry shifted from urban Italian communities to the suburbs. That meant more pizza being made for more customers — and most of it was being delivered. But the paper industry was slow to respond to demands for a stronger container. It took a little company from Michigan called Dominos to convince their box supplier to develop a product made of corrugated paper.

In his autobiography, “Pizza Tiger,” Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan writes about developing a corrugated pizza container with a Detroit-based company called Triad. Corrugated paper is composed of a flat liner and a fluted medium. The latter is a wavy sheet of paper affixed to the flat liner with food-safe glue. Besides enhanced strength, corrugation also enhances insulation to keep the pizza hotter longer.

The Modern Box

The result is the box you know best — it’s thicker and stronger than its paperboard predecessor and always need the little plastic dollhouse table. As a bonus, images print more sharply on corrugated than on paperboard because the corrugation provides cushioning for the printing rolls.

Alas, the trouble with insulation is that it leads to soggy crust. The steam that keeps the pizza hot leads to its downfall. The sad truth is that most consumers have grown accustomed to this tradeoff — but that doesn’t stop inventors from trying to solve the problem. One novel approach enables the offending steam to escape. A corrugated paper company in India called Shree Krishna Packaging invented Ventit, a box with indirect ports that exhaust steam without losing heat. At trade shows, the company demonstrates its ingenious design by holding a lit incense stick inside the box. Viewers can see the smoke exit the box without the implementation of direct ports.

In a 2007 study, the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai confirmed the company’s claims that their design keeps food contents hotter than standard boxes. Blind taste tests by pizzeria customers back up these laboratory claims. But despite expressed consumer preferences for a box that would deliver the best pizza — even for a few more cents per box — food distributors are wary of the extra cost.

Ventit’s Breathing Pizza Box

Pizza boxes have always fought a battle between retaining heat and evicting moisture. This innovation uses indirect venting through the flutes of corrugated board to allow steam to escape while retaining more heat than the common pizza box. It’s currently available only in India and Dubai, but more smart pizza companies are bound to catch on.

The Table Box

Leaving a pizza box on the kitchen table means losing valuable surface area — until now. The lid of the Table Box flips beneath the container and transforms the box base into a pedestal. With your pizza elevated six inches above the table, you have plenty of room for cups of pepper flakes, oregano and grated cheese.

B Flat

Old school pizzerias, particularly those in the northeastern U.S., tend to avoid change in fear of damaging their legacy. Corrugated pizza boxes are composed of a pair of flat paper liners sandwiching a wavy paper layer. The resulting peaks and valleys — or flutes — determine a box’s thickness and strength. Flutes are labeled with letters that correspond to the order in which they were brought to market and also happens to match their thickness in descending order.

“B flute” boxes are the most common in New York pizzerias, but newer “E flute” boxes are thinner and cost less to ship. They even print better than thicker “B flute” boxes because their flutes are closer together, providing a more even surface. Even with all these advantages, most pizzerias in the New York area are stuck on B.

Such is not the case in Italy, a place known for design that integrates art and technology. Although they’ve had pizza much longer than their American counterparts, the Italians have only recently adopted the practice of take-out and delivery. With a younger pizza box industry, Italian pizza box makers have newer equipment that enables more detailed printing. Their pizzas are also smaller and less hefty than their American cousins, alleviating the need for thick boxes.

This combination of thinner boxes and newer equipment has led to an explosion of beautiful artwork on pizza box lids in Italy. They look more like paintings than disposable food containers. It’s worth noting that these treasures reach the hand of the consumer after a purchase has been made, so the art comes as a surprise, rather than a tool for marketing.

Pizza boxes have long been a silent aspect of the pizza buying experience. We tend to overlook the box, relegating it to the dumpster as soon as the last slice disappears. All the while, innovators plug away at solutions to problems most of us don’t even realize exist. Only recently are consumers waking up to the fact that the vessel can be just as important at the food it holds.

The Pizza Pod

Zume Pizza, a startup in Mountain View, Calif., has created the pizza box of the future. Their entire concept is futuristic, starting with the use of robots to make the pizza rather than temperamental humans. It only makes sense that they invented a pizza box to match. Dubbed the “Pizza Pod,” this odd container is made of compressed sugarcane fiber. It absorbs moisture, leaving the pizza dry and crispy. The shells are also completely biodegradable.

For more images from Scott Wiener’s collection of more than 1,300 pizza boxes, get his book, “Viva La Pizza.”