Rio’s Recipe for the Olympic Games

Rio’s Recipe for the Olympic Games

The usual weather in Rio de Janeiro during winter is somewhere between 71 F and 86 F. Around 9 a.m. in late July, the sun shines strong on the horizon. Rather than enjoying the warm winter weather last year, Romano Fontanive, the executive chef at Sol Ipanema Hotel, was exasperated.

That’s because two weeks before the Olympic Games began last August, he was dealing with a significant schedule change: having to purchase food for the restaurant at 7 a.m. instead of at midnight. The shift had more consequences than simple inconvenience. No air conditioning system can prevent what the heat, sun and long lines of traffic in Rio can do to a lettuce leaf at that time of day.

The chef had to stop buying food during the cooler temperatures of night because the Ceasa Market, the most important food market in the city, which provides 80 percent of everything consumed there, changed its working schedule during the Olympic Games from 12 a.m.–10 a.m. to 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Rio’s city government implemented restrictions for truck circulation during the 30-day event (including the Paralympics). With 800,000 tourists in the city, one of the government’s biggest concerns was to ensure fluid traffic for visitors. Unfortunately, the solution that eased road congestion created a nightmare for the supply chain of food and other goods. “I lose approximately 30 percent of the vegetables I buy every day,” Fontanive said last summer. “Life won’t be easy during the Games.”

Chef Romano Fontanive, executive chef at the Sol Ipanema Hotel in Río, had to make major changes to his food delivery schedule due to transportation rules changes during the Games. Nevertheless, he was optimistic about the Olympics’ success. “We need good news in this country right now,” he said in July 2016.

HAULING IN THE DARK

Ceasa is controlled by the state of Rio de Janeiro and works like a giant farmers’ market: food producers rent stalls to show and sell their products in a 20,000-square-foot hangar. There are 800 companies and 2,000 producers registered. Every day, 3,200 trucks pass through Ceasa’s gates. But between July 19 and Sept. 9 (the lead-up to the Olympic Games through the opening of the Paralympics), moving around the city was harder than ever. The plan to reduce traffic for the Olympics forbade trucks from crossing specific areas at different times of day. In Ipanema, for instance, the prohibition was from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays. Many of the vehicles had to wait at the market’s parking lot until the nightly driving window opened when they could drive back to their farms or transport products ordered by customers in the downtown areas. The regulations affected not only Ceasa, but all food providers. Trucks were only able to move freely from midnight to 6 a.m., which means establishments had to keep their employees waiting during non-commercial hours to receive deliveries. The Supermarket Association of Rio said before the Games that the rules wouldn’t affect product offerings in terms of quantity, but it might affect their prices, since the companies could decide to pass the extra costs along to the customer. The Cargo Transport Federation of Rio estimated that 3,000 companies would be strongly impacted, with losses of around 20 percent.

To prepare for the disruptions, the Sol Ipanema Hotel — located at Ipanema Beach, one of Rio’s postcard views — began organizing for the Olympics in the spring of 2016. “Our occupancy rate is high all year, so it’s not hard to adjust our supply,” said Fontanive at the time. But what did change was the amount of perishable food they bought each day. “We are buying more seafood, fish and vegetables to replace what is spoiled during transport” — 20 percent more, Fontanive said. Despite the turbulence with the food supply chain, the chef hoped for the best.

Farther away from Ipanema, going up to Babilônia Hill, one of Rio’s slums, David Bispo seemed less concerned. Bispo is well known in the city after winning several food contests with recipes inspired by the favela’s cuisine, like a mix of seafood with beans. Since the favela was pacified by Rio’s police force in 2010, the Bar do David has become an exotic destination for tourists. Like the Sol Ipanema, Bar do David relies on Ceasa Market as its main food provider. But unlike Chef Fontanive, Bispo wasn’t worried about the food supply during the Olympics, explaining that one has to dance according to the music to make it work. “It’s the jeitinho brasileiro [the Brazilian way of life]: we make it last minute, but we make it work,” Bispo said in July, referring to both his bar and the city’s planning for the Olympics. He decided to wait and see how the first days of the games went before changing his menu or buying more supplies.

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JEITINHO BRAZILEIRO

A typically Brazilian method of social navigation where a person may use emotional appeals, family ties, promises, rewards or money to obtain favors or to get an advantage. The expression also comes from the necessity associated with a lack of resources and help. “Jeitinho” comes from the expression dar um jeito, literally, “to find a way.” It implies the use of resources at hand, as well as personal connections and creativity.

One of the largest food markets in all of Latin America, Ceasa covers 7.5 million square feet. Famous for its flower and plant markets, Ceasa serves citizens as well as restaurants and other businesses in Rio. Image by: Luis Barrios

FEEDING CHAMPIONS

Tourists weren’t the only visitors in Rio last summer. Some 11,000 competitors chasing medals descended on the city, and all of them had to be fed, too. Despite early concerns that the Olympic Village wouldn’t be ready for the thousands of athletes, coaches and trainers when the delegations arrived, the restaurants opened for business. In the Olympic Village, Sapore — a São Paulo-based catering firm that managed food in 12 stadiums during the 2014 Rio World Cup — ran five restaurants with a total combined area equivalent to three soccer fields. They served European, American, Asian and Brazilian specialties 24 hours a day, including pizza, salads, hamburgers, several kinds of pasta, Japanese food, cold sandwiches and some typical Brazilian food, like feijoada (a stew of beans with beef and pork) and coxinha (chopped chicken meat, covered in dough, molded into a shape resembling a chicken leg), with meals also prepared according to Jewish and Islamic specifications. More than 250 tons of food was served per day. That included 100,000 loaves of bread and 3,000 pizzas.

One of the requirements of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB, in the Portuguese initials) during the bidding for caterers was to use as much local food as possible, starting with food produced in Rio, followed by products from the rest of Brazil, then South America and finally internationally. Sapore didn’t have to go that far. All the ingredients in the Olympic Village were procured from Brazilian farms, except for a species of foliage typical of Korean cuisine that is not produced in large quantities in the country.

Ingredients arrived at Sapore’s kitchen all day. Twenty-five heavy-load sealed vehicles transporting food for the Olympic Village received permission to circulate on a different schedule than the one followed by other trucks in the city. “The truckers working with us have authorization to make the deliveries on time,” said Veridiana Corrêa, Sapore’s executive director for the Olympics, last summer. Before disembarking to the kitchen, however, products were taken to Sapore’s Food Quality Center in Duque de Caxias, a nearby city. A team of specialists checked the products according to rules set by Anvisa (Brazil’s authority on health surveillance) and the International Olympic Committee. The suppliers were instructed to send fruits, meat and vegetables already peeled, chopped and ready to cook as a way to reduce waste and facilitate work in the Olympic Village. There, another team was responsible for a final inspection of the ingredients.

Sapore’s Food Quality Center in Duque de Caxias. Before being delivered in the Olympic Village, the food is inspected here.

Technology helped Sapore’s 2,000 employees working in the operation. Computers monitored the temperature of 345 ovens, refrigerators and freezers 24 hours a day. A cloud-based system used cameras in the dining halls to count how many people were in the restaurant and send the kitchen an estimate of the amount of food needed. A digital spreadsheet with previously collected data also helped the chefs calculate how much food should be bought and prepared, according to the number of athletes in the Olympic Village.

All food served was free to the athletes, who could choose from healthy meals, like light sandwiches and salads, or fast food items — a choice that proved vexing for delegations’ nutritionists during past games. (Some teams, like the Australians, brought suitcases with supplements to ensure their competitors keep their diets on track.) In fact, Corrêa said, during the first days of competition, athletes ate a lot more fast food than the company thought they would. But as more events got underway, “the demand for salads and vegetables began to increase as more and more of them started to compete,” Corrêa said. And once those competitions were over, many athletes tossed their strict training regimens. “We don’t have a number of how much fast food was consumed, but I can tell you this: The swimming teams, specially the American team, can eat burgers as I have never seen someone eat before,” Corrêa said.

“A TASTE OF THE GAMES”

The plan for feeding the athletes was published in a 37-page document called “A Taste of the Games.” When it was created in 2012, one of the COB’s biggest commitments was using organic ingredients in the Olympic Village and the rest of the buildings. The plan was to encourage the catering companies to participate in an organic food supply program, called Rio Sustainable Food, by making that a distinctive factor during the bidding. With enormous quantities of food served in the Olympic buildings, it made sense to use this as an opportunity to help organic farmers, who usually lack a formal education and money to invest in their business, and often suffer from the competition of bigger and non-organic farms. But in the end, only one of four caterers hired by the COB signed up to participate in the program. The impact was negligible: R$4,000 (about $1,200) during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Another vow was to minimize food waste. Approximately six tons of produce and other ingredients went uneaten every day in the Olympic Village. But their destination was not the trash. Each day during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the excess was transported to Refettorio Gastromotiva, a soup kitchen created by the Italian chef Massimo Bottura (the best chef in the world, according to the 2016 World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking) and social initiatives in Brazil. The items were ingredients that would have been wasted, such as vegetables considered out of the norm for sale in supermarkets: “We are talking about an ugly tomato, an imperfect zucchini, already mature mangos or flour to make bread,” Bottura explained to the BBC. Bottura and his army of volunteer chefs from all over the world served the extra food from the Olympic Village to the poor people of Rio (2.8 percent of the city’s population live on less than one dollar a day, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics). “This is not just a charity; it’s not just about feeding people,” Bottura said in a New York Times article last August. “This is about social inclusion, teaching people about food waste and giving hope to people who have lost all hope.”

Italian Chef Massimo Bottura created the Refettorio Gastromotiva, a large pop-up soup kitchen repurposed food from the Olympic Village into meals for Rio’s poor during the Games. Image by: Angelo Dal Bo

As for Chef Fontanive and David Bispo, they managed to withstand the major logistical hurdles. Bar do David was operating on full capacity during the Olympic Games and the Paralympics. “We had long lines of people at our door on the weekends,” Bispo says. He estimates that the number of clients was up 30 percent during the games. To manage the traffic snarls, he hired two helpers and avoided Ceasa Market altogether. “We decided to buy food in another farmer’s market, farther away,” Bispo says. “It was faster to cross town than to go to Ceasa.”

Fontanive took a different approach. After the first truck regulations were published in mid-July, Fontanive predicted chaos with deliveries. As part of his early planning, he decided to stock all non-perishable items used by the hotel’s restaurant, especially grains and beverages. “I had to reduce my dependence on the delivery trucks,” Fontanive explains. “We had to adapt. It was a very busy time for business, but the city didn’t plan well enough for the business owners.”

LIVING WITH THE LEGACY

“The Olympic Games bring more than the Olympic Games.” The quote, printed on a giant billboard in the middle of Rio de Janeiro in the lead-up to the Games, tried to remind cariocas (the term for Rio natives) why hosting the event would be good for the city. It will leave legacies, it claimed. According to Datafolha Institute, 60 percent of the population was against the Olympics in Rio, because they believed the resources of a country in crisis should be destined to deficient areas like the public health system and schools. During the opening ceremony, though, this pessimism was momentarily forgotten, as the country put on a simple but energetic performance to receive the 207 participating delegations.

But almost six months after the games ended, many of the touted “legacies” are not part of the population’s reality. Many construction projects weren’t finished, and certain plans, like Rio Sustainable Food, weren’t fulfilled. The houses and apartments in the Olympic Village still aren’t being used for social housing programs, as the government planned. Nobody, not even the leaders of those programs, is sure why. The promise of visibility for the city, in the expectation of attracting tourists and investments, also might be compromised with news reports of political corruption, financial crises and violence spreading all over Brazil. Police, firemen and many public employees have not been paid since June 2016, and the unemployment is 11 percent and rising. Even Rio’s other well-known splashy events are being scaled back: the 2016 New Year’s Eve party was the smallest in 10 years because of a budget shortfall.

As of December 2016, food-related expenses of the Olympics were still not quantified by Brazilian Olympic Committee, which is keeping a low profile as the city faces a major economic crisis. Overall, the games are projected to cost $12 billion, with 57 percent paid for by Brazil’s government and 43 percent by sponsors. There were some good outcomes: the 1.6 million tourists that came to the games spent R$424 (USD$125) a day, and international media coverage was largely positive.

“I was so proud of my city and my country,” says Fontanive. “We were facing a huge financial crisis, we still are, but we were able to create a beautiful event for everyone. But it is over and, now we have to deal with tough reality.”

INTERNATIONAL MEAT STANDARDS

For the athletes’ sake, failure was unacceptable in any of the 1.8 million meals provided in the Olympic Village, especially when it came to cooking meat. The main concern was the presence of substances like clenbuterol, used as treatment for breathing-related diseases in cattle. The drug has anabolic effects that can be identified by doping tests — and no athlete wants that. Brazil is one of the few countries that still authorize clenbuterol use in food-producing animals (the Food and Drug Administration banned it in the U.S. in 1991). But Sapore, the catering company chosen to provision the Olympic Village, ensured them the village would be free of the supplement. “All suppliers have certificates attesting a clenbuterol-free diet for the cattle,” said Veridiana Corrêa, Sapore’s executive director for the Olympics.

Tsukiji on the Verge of Change

Tsukiji on the Verge of Change

During the chaotic early-morning auctions, some of the best seafood in the world passes through the crowded stalls, bound for restaurants in Tokyo and around the world. How will this beloved institution handle a controversial move to a new location?

Tokyo’s Tsukiji (SOO-kee-jee) Market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Nearly 2,000 tons of fish pass through the market daily. Everything from flounder, red snapper, mackerel and bonito to uni (sea urchin), conger eel and blue crab — more than 400 different varieties of fish and seafood — is found there. It’s a veritable edible fish aquarium, where one can see thousands of sea animals, living and dead, fresh and frozen, whole and sliced, stored in tanks, Styrofoam boxes and containers of all shapes and sizes. The whine of circular saws cutting through chunks of frozen tuna mutes the sound of machetes as they hit cutting boards, swung by apprentice wholesalers like samurai swords. Seafood and fish sit in boxes just above the ground, the floor wet from melting ice. This market has rows and rows of narrow aisles, a line of stalls that seems to never end.

Despite being regarded as an eternal institution, Tsukiji is on the verge of a controversial planned move. The old facilities, built in 1935 and squeezed between the Sumida River bank and Ginza shopping district, were scheduled to close in November 2016, when the market was to move to its new location two kilometers to the southeast in the less central area of Toyosu. But lingering doubts about the environmental quality of the new premises and ongoing soil tests prompted Tokyo’s new governor to push the schedule out to 2017. Since the government announced the move in 2010 — citing, among other reasons, the need for larger and more modern market facilities — nostalgia about the end of an era for a major institution in Toyko’s sushi culture turned the spotlight on Tsukiji Market and raised questions about what this local market means for Tokyo and the world.

Nihonbashi Fish Market

Boats docked at the old fish market in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in the 1890s. The predecessor to today’s Tsukiji Market, Nihonbashi was located right next to the famous Nihonbashi Bridge, the point from which even today all distances to the capital are measured. For hundreds of years the smell of fish and the shouts of fishermen, brokers and peddlers penetrated the air. But the market was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Tsukiji was completed in 1935 in nearby Ginza.

ANATOMY OF A MARKET

Tsukiji was built to be Tokyo’s central terminal wholesale market after previous wholesale markets were destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Tsukiji Market, however, claims a longer heritage as successor to the former Nihonbashi Fish Market, which dates back 400 years to the start of Edo-era Japan. Indeed, Tsukiji traders refer to the paved loading slots for buyers’ truck deliveries as “chaya” (teahouses), a vestige of the old Nihonbashi Market era when buyers waited in teahouses alongside the Edo Embankment for the proper tides to carry their out.

The physical market at Tsukiji is divided into the inner (jonai-shijo) market — mostly fish and produce wholesalers — and an outer market (jogai-shijo) of mostly retail shops running along the streets just outside the inner market facilities. The inner market — the part slated to move to Toyosu — is a gigantic structure with 20 major auction pits for the seven largely family-owned auction firms, 1,677 stalls for some 600 intermediate wholesalers and 250 loading slots for buyers’ delivery trucks. The outer market shops comprise some 500 additional businesses consisting of fresh and processed fish, seafood and produce stands, sushi restaurants, and Japanese kitchenware and cutlery shops; these enterprises will remain in a new building in the Tsukiji area following the inner market’s migration. Roughly 60,000 people work at the market, the vast majority of whom are planning to move when the time comes.

Few Tsukiji Market outsiders understand its inner workings better than Harvard anthropologist Theodore Bestor, whose book, “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World” (2004), remains one of the best windows into the market’s cultural and economic structures. Bestor describes the Tsukiji buildings as being laid out to follow a market logic of “bulking and breaking: to bring in products from all over and aggregate them (bulking) and then sell them [to multiple buyers] in usable portions (breaking).” Sea animals that converge at the market from all over the world are reassembled by auctioneers by type and quality and then distributed out again to restaurants, shops and supermarkets, freshly refashioned as commodities.

Market regulars, according to Bestor, refer to Tsukiji as “Tōkyō no daidokoro” or “Tokyo’s pantry.” As the principal supplier of fresh fish and seafood for Tokyo’s restaurateurs and supermarkets, Tsukiji follows a different rhythm from the rest of the city. Its workday starts at 5 p.m. with fish and seafood being shipped in from around the world during the evening. By 3 a.m. workers from auction houses have unpacked the shipments and laid out the seafood by variety, size, catch zone and quality. The famous tuna auction starts at 5:30 a.m., while hundreds of other specialty auctions run in parallel. The auctions are over by 7 a.m., and intermediate wholesalers take their orders away to sell to city buyers, restaurants and retailers throughout the morning.

By 11 a.m. most market vendors have tidied up their stalls, and by 1 p.m. Tsukiji Market pauses for a rest. Cleaning crews wash down the facilities and recycle the tons of Styrofoam used that day. Perhaps the most startling feature of Tsukiji is how little inventory remains at the end of each day. It’s a place that relies on a “low-tech, high-touch trade,” even today. That kind of selling efficiency relies on longstanding relationships between sellers and buyers, Bestor suggests. Vendors know how to clear their inventory and find buyers for everything, so the next day’s stock will be fresh.

At the end of a day of selling and auctions, piles of Styrofoam boxes that once held just-caught fish are corralled for recycling.
Tsukiji by the Numbers

Tsukiji Market is bustling with businesses and workers each day. While it was built to receive shipments from the port, the reality today is that most products arrive by truck.

Bulking and Breaking

Tsukiji is laid out to accomplish a market logic of “bulking and breaking,” explains Tsukiji expert Theodore Bestor. Products are brought in from all over the world and aggregated (bulking), then sold to multiple buyers in usable portions (breaking).

QUIRKS AND WORKAROUNDS

Despite its operational competency, the physical market at Tsukiji is showing its age. As early as the 1990s, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government began discussions about renovating the market, plans that fell through because of the great expense of renovating existing facilities and because of the financial crisis at the time. Now 80 years old, the facilities are out of date and suffer from wear and tear. But the market’s deterioration is only one factor in the decision to relocate — Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games is another. In 2010, Shintaro Ishihara, then Tokyo’s governor, defended his government’s decision to move the market to a new location, exclaiming, “The market is so old that ceiling sections would collapse in a minor earthquake!”

Since the market’s opening in 1935, the fish trade industry has also undergone several dramatic changes that have affected how the market runs, including the rise of distant-water fishing in the 1950s, the shift from boats and railroads to trucking and airfreight, and the growth in frozen seafood trade and international fish trade since the 1970s.

As a result, workers have become accustomed to certain “hacks” required at Tsukiji. Vendors and auctioneers use bags of ice to keep fish and seafood cold in the non-climate controlled building, resulting in soggy, damp floors. In contrast, Toyosu will be a closed, refrigerated environment. The old market was built for shipments to arrive from the port, but since the 1960s most fish arrives by truck. This means that stevedores must bring incoming consignments in from the exit. Turret trucks race through narrow aisles, rushing purchased products from auction floor to vendor stall to buyers’ loading slots, creating a hair-raising flow of traffic inside the market.

These hacks and market workers’ persistent habits lend an endearing but mind-boggling charm to the old market: How can so much fish move through a market by such low-tech means? “You will still see fax machines being used at the market. So crazy!” says Yukari Sakamoto, a chef and sommelier who runs tours through Tsukiji and authored “Food Sake Tokyo” (2010). The low-tech quaintness contributes to the market’s mystique. Tsukiji in many ways flows from Tokyo’s shitamachi culture — a traditional, mercantile culture seen to be rougher and more authentic than the upper-class, modern yamamote culture. Tuna vendors wield machetes like samurai warriors, slicing tuna with precise, careful cuts reminiscent of martial arts choreographed patterns, or “kata.” Tsukiji has what Bestor calls “a kind of nostalgic shabbiness” that has made it popular with tourists for decades.

Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura K.K, poses for photos with a 180.4 kilograms (397 pounds) fresh tuna after this year’s first auction at Tsukiji Market on January 5, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. A fresh whole tuna weighing 180.4 kilograms (397 pounds), sold for 4.51 million yen (approximately $37,500) by Sushi Zanmai, a Tokyo-based sushi chain operator. Image: by Ken Ishii/Getty Images

A bird’s eye view of Tsukiji Market.
The new Toyosu wholesale food market in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, seen from above in July 2016. While the new site is more modern and offers better access to highways and airports, the market’s move from Tsukiji to Toyosu has been delayed several times due to concerns about soil contamination from former gasworks on the site.

Its quirky character belies the market’s increasingly global importance. Tsukiji is a worldwide hub for certain specialty products and high-end goods that will travel to the four corners of the earth. According to a Japan Times report, an estimated 42,000 buyers and 19,000 trucks pass through the market daily. Auctioneers’ decisions about how to categorize and grade fish set global standards. For instance, airfreighted Atlantic bluefin tuna has become the iconic trade at Tsukiji. The tuna auction is big business and sees sales of tuna in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the New Year auction (hatsumaguro) in early 2017, restaurant owner Kiyoshi Kimura paid more than \\74 million (about $650,000) for a 467-pound bluefin. The purchase — his sixth such auction win in six years — was largely a publicity stunt: The high price is well over actual market value. But it indicates the extravagance and visibility of the tuna auction worldwide.

Despite these showy sales, Bestor says the volume has been down for the past 15 to 20 years. “The deflation and stagnation of the Japanese economy since the early 1990s led to a tightening of consumers’ belts,” Bestor explains. Another factor is an increase in direct sales. “More important is the expansion of supermarket chains and chains of restaurants (including the kaitenzushi, or conveyor-belt sushi chains), which bypass the market and purchase at least some of their seafood directly from suppliers in Japanese fishing ports or international importers.”

Buyers inspecting the day’s catch of fresh tuna before the auction begins.

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KAITENZUSHI

A fast-food sushi restaurant in which plates of sushi travel through the restaurant on a rotating conveyor belt that runs by every table and counter seat. Customers select the sushi they want to eat as it passes by.

Mixed Blessings

Nevertheless, Tsukiji is as popular as ever with tourists — who may or may not feel welcome during their visits. In early 2016 the Tsukiji Market shortened the public visiting hours, opening at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., because the increased foot traffic of tourists there to see the original market before its planned move was blocking the flow of narrow aisles between stalls. Warning signs at the entrance clarify that tourists could outstay their welcome if they get in the way of fast-moving workers, transport vehicles and businessmen.

In contrast, the new Toyosu site is decidedly poor for tourism. The three main buildings are divided by large streets that are hard for pedestrians to cross. Tourists may see the produce and seafood markets only by looking down from second-floor glass windows. While this allows more people to watch the tuna auction, the sense of being in the middle of the action has disappeared now that tourists can no longer walk right next to the fish. Toyosu is also disconnected from Tokyo’s centers of consumption and, unlike Tsukiji, has no local community history. There is also no metro station at Toyosu, only a monorail stop that is much less convenient from the city center.

For market insiders, the planned relocation of the inner market to Toyosu is a mixed blessing. Tsukiji Market has an area of just 23 hectares, while the new facilities at Toyosu encompass 40 hectares. This added space has allowed designers to build the facility to favor big-scale business, and to bring the market up to date on global food safety regulations. Toyosu is connected to highways that run directly to Haneda and Narita airports, which will improve airfreight business. And Toyosu will have multistory buildings with elevators to move seafood — though some worry about how this new logistical feature might impede or complicate the flow of goods around the market. Others have voiced concerns that passageways in the new market might be too narrow for turret trucks to pass through.

As the move’s original timeline has come and gone, some remain on the fence about whether to relocate with the market, according to Bestor. (Various reports have suggested that as many as one in six vendors are thinking about not relocating.) Many factors will ultimately shape their decisions, but Bestor says four stand out.

“If one’s shop was small scale, perhaps only occupying one or two stalls at Tsukiji, there’s less incentive to stay in business since Toyosu seems oriented toward larger-scale players,” Bestor explains. “Likewise, there’s less incentive to move if your shop catered to the walk-in trade of small-scale fishmongers and independent sushi chefs.” Bestor adds that the overhead required to move and set up a new shop is substantial and may be prohibitive for some vendors. And for some longtime Tsukiji denizens, “If you don’t have an heir looking to take over the business, then you may consider this to be a good time to think about retirement and cashing out your business by selling your trading license to another mid-level wholesaler.”

The move to the new Toyosu location has also been beset with scandal over whether relocation was rushed by officials too eager to repurpose Tsukiji’s central Tokyo real estate for the 2020 Olympics. The Toyosu wharf is built on landfill that was found to be contaminated by toxic effluent from former gasworks there. Despite assurances from the former government that the soil had been remediated and would not pose a risk to food sold there, recent independent tests contradicted this position.

In July 2016 Tokyo elected a new governor, Yurio Koike, in what can only be described as a protest vote against the previous governor’s mismanaged city projects, including those involving the construction of Olympic facilities. Her election reflects the feelings of negative public sentiment that have grown with these costly, rushed and top-down urban development policies. A few weeks after her election, Koike pushed the planned November timeline into 2017 so that doubts about soil contamination at Toyosu could be alleviated.

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TURRET TRUCK

A turret truck is a battery-operated machine designed to operate in very narrow aisles.

Hundreds of Styrofoam boxes filled with seafood pile up on pallets in the bustling Tsukiji Market.

CAUTIONARY TALES

If Tokyo wants a lesson on how not to handle the move, it could look to Paris’s widely deplored relocation of the Les Halles Market in the 1970s. Once called the “Belly of Paris” by Emile Zola, Paris’s historical central wholesale market was relocated to modern facilities in Rungis, a suburb. What remained in the old market area, the Forum des Halles, is considered by many to be an urban planning blight. The market’s elegant 19th-century pavilions, with their windows of wrought iron and glass, were torn down. In the old market’s place the city built a bland underground transport and shopping complex. It serves as a cautionary tale about rezoning a central economic and social institution without considering locals’ nostalgia and affection for it.

Other cities have fared better. In the 1970s London decided to move the wholesale market at Covent Garden out to the northeastern corner of the city. The Greater London Council’s initial plans for the central neighborhood involved large-scale development contracts with little concern for housing that reflected the socioeconomic diversity of its inhabitants or the small merchants that thrived on the edges of the old market. Locals successfully protested, forming the Covent Garden Community Association, and the city decided to instead renovate the Covent Garden area to foster small shops and cafes. Today it is a popular commercial area.

Sellers prepare bins of fish for the wholesalers, chefs and retail customers that frequent the market daily.

Barcelona, in the same period, closed its central Mercat del Born, opening its present-day wholesale market, Mercabarna. Plans to restore El Born as a large shopping center languished from lack of public support and private finance, until in 2002 extensive medieval ruins were discovered on the site. In 2013 El Born reopened as an archaeological museum used for cultural events, and it has since been a source of local Catalan pride in preserving local heritage.

The core market relationships that form the social infrastructure of Tsukiji will largely continue at Toyosu, whatever the fallout from the move. Tuna auctions will continue to set the standard for the world fish trade, and this will continue to be the biggest fish market in the world. Only time will tell what residues of life at the old Tsukiji market will linger in its more modern successor.

Feeding Remote Places: When the Last Food Mile is the Middle of Nowhere

Feeding Remote Places: When the Last Food Mile is the Middle of Nowhere

Provisioning the dwellers of far-flung places puts all the elements of the food supply chain on display — from production and distribution to preparation and consumption. But how do they actually get it there?

When the unmanned SpaceX Falcon blew up en route to the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2015, 4,000 pounds of food were lost. It was the third consecutive attempt to bring food to the orbiting astronauts that failed. The astronauts — though not in imminent danger — were left hanging.

Although there have been some preliminary, and successful, attempts to grow salad greens in the space station, the astronauts on board remain dependent on rations from earth. Luckily for them, subsequent vessels reached the space station in time to spare them a lettuce diet.

The ISS epitomizes the cliche, “So close, yet so far.” Its orbit is only 249 miles above the earth, but those are some problematic miles to cross. One can imagine the astronauts hovering above the earth, recognizing familiar cities and gazing toward the spot where they know an In-n-Out Burger to be.

And while the ISS is remote, there are many places on earth that are even trickier to get to, with situations that require similarly complex logistics. When feeding the dwellers of far-flung places, all the elements of the food supply chain are on display, including production, distribution, preparation and consumption. How the resulting waste is managed is also a reflection of how far away from home one is. At a certain point, that waste become less of a burden and more of a necessity.

After months of technical setbacks, the unmanned Falcon 9 Space X Rocket, with its Dragon Cargo Ship, delivered 2.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2014. It was the first time a private company used its own rocket on a resupply mission. Image: courtesy NASA.gov.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, left, performs a replenishment at sea with the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jay C. Pugh

Floating City

The U.S. Navy’s 10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers are the largest ships in the world. Nearly a quarter mile in length, these vessels are like floating cities, with many of the amenities of home, including a variety of foods. Unlike oil-powered ships of similar size that need to refuel every three days, the nuclear-powered Nimitz ships can cruise at 55 mph for 20 years straight — about 10 million miles — on a single “tank” of nuclear fuel.

But while the ship’s engines aren’t in danger of going hungry, the 6,000 hard-working sailors on board will eat through 25 pallets worth of food a day — roughly what an average family eats in five years. The ship’s pantries can store more than 60 days’ worth of dried food and 30 days’ worth of frozen, but only approximately two weeks’ worth of fresh fruits and vegetables. Bringing these massive ships to port every 14 days during a seven- to nine-month deployment is neither convenient nor strategic. Instead, the carriers can remain in position thanks to a maneuver known as Replenishment at Sea.

The procedure has the look of an elaborate mating ritual between two ships. They move forward on parallel courses, about 150 feet apart. Sailors on the carrier fire rifles loaded with weighted slugs at the replenishment ship. The slugs trail thin lines to which progressively heavier cables are attached and pulled across the chasm, until cables large enough to be winched connect both forward-moving ships. Eventually, the cables are hooked up to hydraulic rigs and tensioned to several thousand pounds of pressure, and mini cable cars ferry pallets of food (and other goods) between the two ships.

To speed things up, helicopters ferry pallets directly to the carrier’s flight deck, where forklifts are waiting to bring them into the bowels of the ship’s warehouse-sized pantries. Other cables strung between the two ships function as zip lines across the chasm, on which more loads of food travel. As the supplies are loaded, fuel lines are also stretched across, because fighter jets have to eat, too.

For an in-depth look at life on an aircraft carrier, check out the PBS series “Carrier.”

USS Ross receives pallets of supplies from USS John Lenthall during a replenishment-at-sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price.

Sailors heave a line during an underway replenishment aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence.

Sailors on the USS Blue Ridge look on as a refueling boom crosses over the South China Sea.

USS Ross receives supplies during a replenishment-at-sea with USS John Lenthall. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price

U.S. Sailors prepare to transport pallets during a replenishment at sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

Sailors and Marines pass boxes in the hangar bay aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge during a replenishment-at-sea with the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic and the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaleb R. Staples

Meanwhile, waste from the floating city is offloaded to the replenishment vessel. Waste plastic, which has been compressed into discs, will be returned to port and disposed of according to local law. Paper products are burned in filtered incinerators. Food waste goes overboard, presumably to the delight of local fish. When far from shore, human waste feeds the fish too.

The basic configuration of cables binding two moving ships was designed by Lt. Chester Nimitz himself—for whom the world’s largest aircraft carriers are named—during World War I. Stationed 300 miles south of Greenland on the replenishment vessel USS Maumee, Nimitz tweaked and refined his system while refueling and replenishing 34 destroyers in difficult conditions during the spring of 1917. Now, as then, time is of the essence in this drill, as both ships are vulnerable to attack when they are intertwined. And accidents happen.

“Any time you put a 95,000-ton aircraft carrier next to a 50,000-ton replenishment vessel in heavy seas, tied together, sometimes King Neptune will reach up and knock things off the line and into the water,” says retired U.S. Navy Captain Dan Grieco. In Grieco’s 30-year career he’s seen only two items lost during replenishment, including an aircraft part, which they recovered after hastily suspending the replenishment and beginning a search operation.

While the replenishment operation itself is a well-oiled machine, its success depends on finding the time to conduct it. During operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Grieco says, they couldn’t replenish as often as they wanted, and it wasn’t good. “We were down to drinking boxed milk at times,” he says.

Further Afield

The difficulties involved in feeding an aircraft carrier full of sailors are rooted in the sheer quantities of food and in the windows of vulnerability that open when the food is handed off. But for those who overwinter on Antarctic bases, the challenge is reversed. The number of mouths are fewer, but the intervals between replenishments are considerably longer. And getting there, especially in winter, can be more dangerous than an off-planet jaunt to the space station. In fact, winter travel is so dangerous that even medical evacuations from Antarctica are extremely rare. Winter residents of Antarctica are generally stuck with what ails them until winter breaks. And the same goes for what nourishes them.

On the shifting surface of the Brunt Ice Shelf, on the coast of Antarctica, the British-run Halley VI research station was built on skis to stay atop the ice—something its five predecessors failed to accomplish. And while the Nimitz carriers wait two weeks between replenishments, and the ISS is paid a visit every 40 or so days, Halley IV gets only two visits per year, courtesy of the British icebreakers Shackleton and Ross.

The first visit of the summer season lands just before Christmas, when a seasonal crew of about 100 people arrives. The Antarctic summer doesn’t linger long, and before you know it a ship is back in February to take the snowbirds home. Those two visits constitute the only opportunities for replenishment that the base sees for an entire year. The crew of 11 that overwinters for nearly 10 months must make that food last until the following December atop the hungry ice.

The pantry at Halley VI is stocked with canned supplies and staples that must last through the winter for a crew of 11 to 16. Once the February shipment comes and goes, the pantry won’t be restocked until the following December.

The Christmas arrival delivers a summer stash of fresh veggies, but its main non-human cargo is a year’s supply of frozen and canned goods. The February delivery brings almost exclusively fresh veggies, explains John Eager, a former chef at the base who now does kitchen and meal planning from Halley’s administrative headquarters in the United Kingdom. The nature of the fresh vegetables tends to be along the lines of what you might find in a homesteader’s root cellar.

Halley VI is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, a mass of ice floating on the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND FETA CHEESE TARTLETS

Take squash that’s just past fresh, roast and freeze it to make this fresh-tasting dish in the depths of the Antarctic winter. The tartlets make a great starter with reduced balsamic vinegar during the 105 days of darkness at Halley.

3 tbsp. olive oil
600 grams squash, peeled and diced
375 grams puff pastry
150 grams feta cheese
1 red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tsp. thyme leaves
Salt and black pepper, freshly ground
2 baking trays, one lined with Teflon sheet

Set the oven to 400°F. Heat a baking tray with 1 tablespoon oil on it. Add the diced squash and roast for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Meanwhile, roll out the pastry and cut into 6 equal pieces. Put them on the Teflon-lined baking sheet. Mark a thin border around each one. Chill for 30 minutes.

Divide the cooked squash and place it on the pastry squares, inside the borders. Crumble cheese over top, then sprinkle with chili and thyme. Season and drizzle with the rest of the oil. Bake for 30 minutes, until golden and cooked through. Serve hot, with reduced balsamic vinegar dressing.

“We stick to hard, dense stuff that lasts a lot longer. Potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, turnips,” Eager says. “They store incredibly well, as the atmosphere is very dry. Eggs keep well, too. We can make them last six months by turning them over every week.”

Because it can take several weeks for the icebreakers to make their way to the station, anything more perishable might not even survive the journey to Antarctica, much less stick around through the winter. “Anything like salad is in a sorry state by the time it gets there,” Eager says.

Frozen foods, meanwhile, are in their element on the frozen continent. While the base itself endeavors to stay atop the ice, most of the frozen goods are buried about 10 feet down — which makes more sense than using electricity to power a freezer.

As veggies like squash approach their expiration dates, the cook will make them last longer by preparing finished dishes and freezing them. Many holiday meals are prepared and frozen months ahead of time.

Waste in Antarctica is carefully dealt with, in accordance to the Protocol for Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1991. Solid waste is sent home for incineration, while sewage and greywater are treated on site so that minimal trace is left behind.

Waste may be a liability in Antarctica, with massive effort and expense invested in its disposal. But when you get further away than the end of the Earth, waste suddenly becomes too valuable to part with.

Waste as Fuel

Any journey beyond the moon would reach the limits of the earthly supply chain. It’s not that food couldn’t be brought along; it’s just that replenishments can’t be counted on. If you don’t come back soon you will run out of food — unless you produce your own.

NASA hopes to complete a two-year mission to Mars by the 2030s. SpaceX hopes to get there a decade sooner. The present, consequently, is a fertile time for research into how to feed astronauts aboard space ships and on different planets. Because a growing portion of space exploration is being conducted by private enterprises, much of the research is closely guarded as trade secrets. But the studies being done in the public sphere are enough to shed light on how the space-age food scene could look.

For long-haul journeys through space, and for colonizing Mars, the primary means of food transport will be in the form of information, including knowledge about how to grow plants in space and in alien environments. And no information is more valuable, and less replaceable, than the DNA of seeds. These genetic blueprints are the primary way humans could transport food to places that are too far away to be replenished or to bring sufficient supplies. In the case of the two-year journey to Mars, it may be possible to pack enough calories to keep the astronauts alive. But growing edible plants on board the spacecraft would likely be vital to survival for other reasons entirely.

As plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen. On the long flight to Mars, this action would purify the air on board. Meanwhile, the sequestration of that atmospheric carbon, in the form of plants, would take care of the astronauts’ waste.

The interconnectedness of food, oxygen and waste disposal has led to a focus on closed-loop systems in research laboratories. In one study, rats are being kept alive with oxygen produced by algae. Depending on oxygen levels in the rats’ enclosure and the rats’ metabolic requirements, scientists can shine light on the the algae to trigger photosynthesis, the process by which plants consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. This is a simplified version of how astronauts and their food production systems could help regulate their shared atmosphere.

Any food grown in such a system could be considered a byproduct of the processes of waste management and atmospheric purification. The astronauts would have to do their part in the cycle by eating the food and excreting the waste products therefrom. As the astronauts would be eating much more than what they grow, thanks to the food they brought with them, the volume of their waste would likely exceed what they need for their little garden. But that extra poop would not be jettisoned. You don’t throw away gold.

While some researchers are studying the biospheres of space travel, others are looking into how food could be produced when and where the spaceship lands. Dutch scientists are attempting to grow crops like tomatoes, peas and wheat in red earth, dug from a Hawaiian volcano, thought to closely resemble Martian soil. According to Wieger Wamelink, an ecology researcher at Wageningen University, it took a little tweaking and some animal refuse, but plants eventually began growing quite well in the red dirt, which was purchased from NASA. On Mars, he explains, the plants will similarly have some extra help.

“The feces of the astronauts [produced] during the travel have to be stored and brought to Mars, where it can be used as fertilizer,” Wamelink explains.

Hundreds of thousands of seed samples from around the world are saved at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway.

SEED DATA

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway has been nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault” because its location and construction were designed to withstand a variety of manmade and natural disasters. North enough to withstand rising temperatures, high enough to avoid tsunamis and rising sea levels, remote enough to survive a nuclear war and deep enough in a mountain to withstand meteorites, bombs and tornadoes, Svalbard has as good a chance as any place on earth of surviving the big one.

While Svalbard is often referred to as a seed bank, it technically isn’t, as no regeneration of seed takes place on site. “We built a tunnel in a frozen mountain and put seeds in it,” explains Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which funded Svalbard’s construction and now covers its operating costs.

Humble remarks aside, Svalbard is no joke. The vault holds copies of seed collections from seed banks around the world, including ancient strains of wheat, lentil and chickpea from Aleppo’s imperiled seed collection. Every time a depositor seed bank regenerates any of its seed, they update Svalbard’s collection, which currently contains 860,000 varieties.

Future astronauts may grow some of their meals inside greenhouses, such as this Martian growth chamber, where fruits and vegetables could be grown hydroponically, without soil. Image: by Pat Rawlings, courtesy NASA SAIC.

Sowing nitrogen-binding plants like clovers, lupine, green bean and pea is another vital step in the process, according to the Dutch scientists. “Together with nitrogen-fixing bacteria they can take nitrogen gas from the air and turn that into eventually nitrate, which the plants can use for growth,” says Wamelink.

Obviously, growing food in actual Martian soil could present a host of obstacles. The food would have to be grown in some kind of space greenhouse that would be pressurized to Earth’s atmospheric pressure. It would need to be heated, lit and protected from cosmic radiation, which damages plant DNA. Perhaps it could be partially buried, with electric lights at night, powered by solar panels. The first colonists to arrive on Mars will have no shortage of work to keep them busy, as they attempt to construct a real-life biosphere experiment—not in the red sands of Arizona, but on the red planet itself.

Despite the challenges of feeding people in remote places, humans continue to push the limits of their range. When the distance from home reaches the point where growing food is more practical than bringing it, the journey from “farm” to table resets. Space travelers millions of miles from home, counterintuitively, will be eating more locally than the person on Earth who shops at his or her local grocery store. And in the closed-loop systems where plants and humans thrive on each other’s waste, some basic facts underlying the Earth’s ecosystems become crystal clear, even as our home planet fades in the rearview mirror. Food and waste are different sides of the same coin, part of an endless cycle.

If you were embarking on a two-year trip to Mars, what foods would you be sure to take? Tweet us. #FeedingMars

The Early Years of Logistics

The Early Years of Logistics

We increasingly want more information about our food. We want to see, at least once, the faces of those who bring food from fields to plates. The farther we’ve gotten from the farm, the more important transparency has become. To better understand a system that is largely invisible, we need an introduction to food logistics. History is a good place to begin.

Ever find yourself behind a double-parked truck? Most likely, it’s delivering food. Trucks covered with images of pizza or a cornucopia of vegetables make their way into the hearts of cities around the world daily, and we hardly take note — except when they block our way to work. But truckers aren’t the only ones who dispatch our daily food supply. Container ships, cargo planes, bicyclists, camels and trains all conjoin in one complex global supply chain.

Although the tracks of our food as it travels today are well hidden, the flow of the food supply chain has existed for millennia. Pack animals and olive-oil-bearing clay amphorae delivered food from source to consumption before the birth of Jesus. But logistics, the complex systems that optimize the flow of food, originated with Alexander the Great.

Read notes from Robyn’s book research.

FORAGE AS FUEL

The concept of logistics appeared far earlier than the word. The word first appeared in the late 19th century to mean the art of moving and maneuvering armies, including their supplies and food. The first logisticians — working long before the 1800s — had to consider the seasonality of fodder, food for transport animals, the lack of roads for wheeled transport and the scarcity of ports, storage facilities, depots and communication networks.

During the fourth century BC, the Greek king Alexander the Great assembled an empire that stretched from Asia to Africa. His success was largely due to his understanding of logistics, the strategic movement of men and weapons that factored in harvest calendars, geography and the need for single points of control.

Other military commanders improved on Alexander’s strategies for moving food and materiel. For them, having seamless logistics was a combat strategy. When Hannibal Barca, a Punic commander from Carthage, crossed the Alps in 218 BC, more than 30 elephants joined his army. The imminent snowfall would slow their progress and make it impossible to reach their enemies in Italy. The logistics of moving his army and the food to feed his troops was complicated enough. But the challenge of feeding the animals that transported the food proved impossible.

“The Elements of the Science of War” appeared in 1811, written by an engineer named Wilhelm Muller. He wrote about military campaigns going back to 1667, citing the importance of balancing troop movements with the need for “victuals” and forage.

While today we move food to cities on various forms of wheeled and non-wheeled transport networks, our networks run on fossil fuel, not forage. Early logisticians were faced with the vagaries of growing seasons, changeable weather and the limited availability of enough forage to keep their equine and elephantine transport on their feet and moving. While we struggle to keep food cold and extend shelf life, those early logisticians had much more to contend with. Like no roads.

On this amphora, you see Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest and winemaking, drinking wine while satyrs make wine — an illustration of the journey from vine to cup.

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Victuals

Food or provisions, typically as prepared for consumption.

EARLY HIGHWAYS

Roman roads are mentioned in nearly every tourist guidebook. The Romans developed complex procurement and distribution of food supplies, mostly because the republic and then the empire did not produce enough food locally to feed its growing urban populations. While the Assyrians and Greeks knew how to feed their soldiers, it wasn’t until the Romans developed a complex system of roads, taxation and administration that the idea of optimizing the movement of food took shape. Roman roads and bridges show us how they distributed food across the empire.

Centuries later, when Napoleon led his Grand Armée to conquer Russia in 1812, he drew upon Greek and Roman logistics to enable his troops to stay in the field longer, sustained by a ready supply of food while destroying the supplies of their enemies. But his march on Stalingrad wasn’t so successful. The Cossacks in his path resorted to destroying food supplies along the way. Napoleon’s rations and forage for his animals were soon depleted as the Russian winter closed in. In the end, Napoleon lost almost 400,000 troops. His defeat precipitated his fall from power and the unraveling of the Napoleonic Empire. Logistics proved to be his nemesis.

THE SCIENCE OF LOGISTICS

As the Industrial Revolution mechanized much of civilian society, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the concept of the scientific management of process manufacturing. He promoted practices that optimized the workflow while eliminating waste. These included standardizing parts and practices as well as carefully measuring and maximizing the use of time and labor. Taylorism, as his theory was called, led to further developments that looked at how to produce and move products from factory to consumer. Food production was one of many processes that became Taylorized.

The food supply chain differs from other supply chains in its requirement for careful temperature control. The development of ice manufacturing and refrigeration led to the development of what is now called the cold chain. Entrepreneurs such as Augustus Swift revolutionized the meat supply chain, utilizing refrigerated rail cars and vertically integrating all aspects of meat production.

Railroads began to move food across long distances beginning in the mid-19th century. Shipping containers, developed by Malcom McLean during the 1950s and 1960s, transformed how food moved on ships, trucks and railroads. The integration of these transport networks eventually became our international, intermodal food distribution network. When computers arrived during the early 1950s and 1960s, the idea of logical workflows got an extra push through the acceleration of data processing. The development of computer-based forecasting systems and materials requirements planning came next. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that supply chain management became a thing, leading to the emergence of supply chain departments and centers in academic institutions. And now, food logistics has its own professional organizations, conferences and publications.

Look for this historical narrative to go into hyperdrive as railroads, computers, tracking devices, drones and robots bring new speed, safety and personalization to our daily meal.

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Process Manufacturing

The production of goods typically produced in bult quantities — as opposed to discrete and countable units — including chemicals, food and beverages, gasoline, paint and pharmaceuticals.

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.