On Our Loading Dock

On Our Loading Dock

Our nightstands are loaded with books to read and our laptops are packed with websites to explore and unpack some wisdom about the global food supply chain.


A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression

In the 1930s, Americans who were used to abundance were suddenly on food rations. Jane Zeigelman and Andrew Coe show how home economists came to the rescue with nutritional science, and government rose to the occasion with food assistance programs. Alas, some of the food promoted by the government was dismal: liver loaf (made palatable by a the addition of ketchup). Today’s MyPlate guidelines may be unimaginative, at least liver loaf is absent.

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, From the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First

Frank Trentmann examines how and why we consume things, including food. He explains the closed-loop economies of company towns: companies provided jobs, housing and food through one supply chain. He illustrates how two trends — wellness culture and the rise of food prep outside the home — opened opportunities for new food products. Without directly addressing how the global food supply chain gets all those things to consumers, he offers a wide-ranging discussion of why we consume things.

Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America

In Jonathan Rees’ history of America’s cold chain, he shows how refrigeration influenced our diets and improved food safety—from ice harvesters in 19th century New England to Kelvinator’s Foodarama in the 1960s (the largest home refrigerator ever built). He explores refrigeration’s impact on the environment, illuminating tradeoffs with technologies that limit food waste by using energy resources. He also suggests ways to make the cold chain more energy efficient.

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America

Michael Ruhlman takes readers through the history of food retailing to an evaluation of today’s grocery stores. He explains the complications of processing, labeling and distributing food to a population obsessed with convenience, unable to cook and confused by conflicting food claims. In the end, he shares his view of the future of retailing with consumers who demand more processed food produced on a smaller scale. Look for surprising news about the history of food delivery.

Bread is Gold

This new book by the world-famous chef Massimo Bottura contains recipes that address food waste. Dishes created by Bottura and his friends (such as Chef Alain Ducasse) focus on low-cost but tasty ways to prepare meals with minimal waste.


How I Built This

App developer Apoorva Mehta almost gave up on being an entrepreneur until he figured out what he really wanted to do: find a hassle-free way to buy groceries. Five years after launch, the grocery delivery app Instacart is valued at $3 billion.


Alexis Madrigal covers the world of global shipping in eight episodes. Interviews of tug boat operators and dock workers provide insights into the world of our global supply chain, including the food supply chain. Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Madrigal captures the sounds of shipping.

Can Food Waste Save the World?

This episode covers films, chefs and other projects that are raising awareness about the need to reduce food waste.

 Films and Television


Produced by Anthony Bourdain and co-directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye, this feature documentary film offers more than the usual mea culpa about food waste. Viewers will see mountains of food waste but also learn how high-end chefs are leading a campaign to use everything the world produces. Massimo Bottura, Dan Barber and Danny Bowien are a few of the chefs that make the case for eating food waste. Look for some innovative ways to cook with all those potato peels and ugly fruit. As Bourdain says in the film, “I’d urge you to look at what you’re eating, instead of looking at waste.”

The Oyster Revival

This new documentary film tells the story of how oysters are critical to the ecology of our coastlines. The increasing consumer demand for oysters of all types is adding pressure to the oyster supply and also adding to the number of producers. See how oyster beds are water filtration systems at the same time as they feed an oyster revival.


The disappearance of fish canneries from our landscape is good news for environmentalists but bad news for those who lose their jobs. This documentary looks at one small town and its loss of jobs and a local fish cannery and how one man attempts to keep the factory open.



If you want to study food, there’s no better place to go than Italy and the Gustolab International Institute for Food Studies (GLi). As the first center of study and research in Italy dedicated to academic programs on the theme of Food Studies, GLi offers study abroad programs in food, media and nutrition. Check out their website for academic affiliations that may provide academic credit for Gustolab’s program. While you’re in Italy, enjoy some of the gelato shops featured in the first issue of Food+City magazine.

Startup Spotlight: 2017 Prize Finalists Keep Sparking Change

Startup Spotlight: 2017 Prize Finalists Keep Sparking Change

Whether they were newly hatched companies or enterprises needing a little help getting to the next level, competitors in the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize are still going strong. We checked in with several finalists to hear about their progress.

Evaptainers logo

Refrigeration is an invention of the supply chain. You can’t safely transport perishable food without it (unless you employ centuries-old preservation tactics like salt curing or pickling). But in the 100 years since refrigeration technology was invented, it hasn’t changed much, and it almost always requires electricity to work.

In many developing countries, electricity is not assured, and many people suffer from food insecurity because they can’t save or preserve enough food. Nearly half of the produce grown in Africa goes to waste before it reaches the consumer. Evaptainers, a Boston- and Morocco-based startup, has reimagined refrigeration technology and is bringing it to those who need it most.

Evaptainers’ refrigeration systems don’t run on electricity. Instead, they use sunlight and water. A collapsible box, small enough to sit on a countertop, cools food the same way humans cool themselves — through evapotranspiration. In other words, when water evaporates, cooling occurs.

This simple yet revolutionary technology has been garnering lots of attention and gaining traction. Following the capital infusion that came with winning the gold prize at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, the company went on to win more awards: One award at the pitch competition Foodbytes! in San Francisco and a United Nations innovation award at the Seeds and Chips global summit in Milan. They have also been featured in Ag Funder News, The Boston Business Journal and TechCrunch. Their acceleration continues, with support from LAUNCH Food and funding from USAID, and they are finalizing the production of 400 prototypes slated for a field trial in Morocco this summer. A commercial launch is likely in 2018.

In addition to vital funding, a key result from their experience at Food+City’s Challenge Prize has been relationships with other startups.

“We met startups working on different aspects of food and food waste and have learned so much from our conversations with them about the arduous yet fruitful process of growing a small social impact business,” says chief strategy officer Serena Hollmeyer Taylor. Starting a company is often a struggle, as Prize competitors know. The opportunity to interact with others going through similar challenges, who can share knowledge and lessons learned, is a powerful outcome of Prize.

Evaptainers‘ electricity-free refrigeration device, made especially for use in developing countries where the electricity grid is unreliable. Using evapotranspiration, the box keeps produce and other products cool and prevents spoilage.

Nüwiel logo

The Last Mile is a supply chain concept ripe for innovation. It is often the most expensive and complicated leg of the supply chain journey for food products. Narrow roads, city traffic and generally limited space contribute to the challenge of this final stage in the supply chain. Large, cumbersome trucks have traditionally been the go-to mule — and scapegoat — for these deliveries.

Nüwiel, a startup in Hamburg, Germany, has taken on that challenge. The company created electric-powered bicycle trailers specifically for last-mile delivery in urban settings. Their technology knows exactly when to accelerate, decelerate and brake to make last-mile delivery via bicycle more efficient and realistic. In addition to improving delivery efficiency and reducing road traffic, the bike trailers don’t contribute to the pesky urban problems of noise and air pollution.

After winning the bronze prize at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, Nüwiel used the attention to accelerate their development.

“The Prize has certainly helped us a lot. We received significant media attention, getting mentioned not only in Germany but also in the U.S., U.K., Austria and Italy,” says co-founder Natalia Tomiyama.

In the months since Prize, Nüwiel has been accepted to a second stage at the biggest trans-European accelerator, Climate KIC; they’ve scheduled pilot projects with four different partners; attended South By Southwest; updated the design of the trailer; built a prototype; and were selected as to pitch and exhibit at the CUBE Tech Fair in Berlin. Last summer, they got out of the building to bike across Europe — from Hamburg to Italy, passing through the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain — and test the durability of their trailer.

Nüwiel’s powered trailer for making urban food deliveries; hooked up behind a bike.

Phenix logo

The issue of food waste is under attack on multiple fronts. Entrepreneurs are coming up with new ways to use food waste, while public awareness campaigns aim to induce behavior change. Some progressive governments have even joined the battle. In France and Italy, laws ban food waste and remove barriers to food donation. This means that French supermarkets can’t throw out unsold produce. While well intentioned, the law leaves French groceries in a bind, with hundreds or thousands of pounds of food that can neither be sold nor thrown away.

Enter Phenix, a 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize finalist, which is addressing that logistical issue in their home country of France. Phenix’s digital platform connects grocery stores with nonprofit organizations whose mission is to feed the underprivileged and food insecure. They organize pick-ups and drop-offs and connect surplus supply with demand in real time, employing their fleet of vehicles to transport the food. Phenix is saving 20 tons of food before it hits landfills, while supplying their charity partners with 27,000 meals — every day.

Since Prize, Phenix was a finalist for the French American Entrepreneurship Award (FAEA). At its headquarters in Europe the company has continued to expand into new regions in France and by finding new segments of the market.

Phenix’s mission goes beyond food waste, which is why they have created a lab to incubate new projects around the circular economy, a system that challenges the more linear system of make-use-dispose by inventing ways of maximizing the value of a resource and regenerating it into another purpose when it reaches its functional end. So instead of trashing unused food, for instance, a circular economy maximizes value buy feeding it to people in need or, when that’s not possible, transform it into a different usable product such as nutrient-rich compost. A planned grocery store with shelves full of strictly unsold products will serve as an example of of this model.

Despite similarities in the ways France and the U.S. treat tax deductions for donations, operating in the U.S. can be difficult because of regulation around food expiration dates. “France has a very detailed and clear framework on what expiration dates mean and what can be donated,” says Sarah Lenoble, director of Phenix USA. “Whereas it is much less clear in the U.S., where there is no real regulation on expiration dates, and every state can have its own regulation.” Phenix is searching for the right partner to launch a pilot program in the U.S.

Phenix workers and partners pick up and recycle or reuse uneaten foods in France.

A worker from Phenix organizes supplies for reuse.

Rise Products logo

There’s a movement brewing that includes turning surplus bread into beer, aquafaba — aka chickpea cooking liquid — into vegan mayonnaise and food waste into new packaging and products. With all the attention food waste is getting, it makes sense that “upcycling,” the process of using a discarded material and creating a valuable product with it, is quickly gaining traction in the marketplace.

Rise Products takes unspent barley from microbreweries in Brooklyn and uses a proprietary process to turn it into flour, which can be used to make the same products as traditional wheat flour. And they’re working with well-known Brooklyn bakery Runner and Stone to develop recipes for all kinds of carby treats. The flavor of the flour Rise produces varies based on what type of beer was produced from the grain — flour from ales tastes nutty and light, while porters create a dark and rich flour that smells like chocolate.

By participating in events like the Zero Waste Food conference and the Make It in Brooklyn Pitch Contest, in which it was selected as a top-five finalist, Rise has firmly entrenched itself in the upcyling-to-beat-food-waste movement.

Since winning a silver award at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, Rise has continued to gain momentum. They completed their time at the Food-X accelerator, gaining valuable mentorship and connections, and came away with a prototype for a production facility. From their spot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of the 1776 Accelerator, Rise is working with the New York Economic Development Board to develop their own production plant.

Making the most of the Prize experience, they have stayed in touch with other startups from the competition, as well as their mentor, Ashley Shaffer of IDEO.

“Participating was an awesome experience for us, especially since we met our mentor, Ashley. We’ve kept in touch with her and with the other participants since then, even meeting some of them recently in Milan during the Seeds & Chips conference,” says COO Ashwin Goutham Gopi.

Bags of ready-to-use Rise Flour, made from spent brewery grains.

Smallhold logo

Some say the future of agriculture is in cities. As the world’s urban population continues to expand, it is easy to imagine how growing food in nontraditional areas, like skyscrapers and downtown warehouses, will benefit the food system. But while vertical farms, urban and rooftop gardens, and shipping container farms are all making progress in the area of urban farming, none has a foothold quite yet.

Distributed farming is the latest idea in this sector. The process enables a business or restaurant to re-route the last food mile and finish growing a product in the location where it will be consumed.

Brooklyn-based Smallhold is leading the charge for distributed farming. At the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, co-founders Andrew Carter and Adam Demartino pitched the idea of distributed farming through restaurant mini-farms that produce mushrooms. Today they’re cultivating several unusual varieties of mushrooms, from lion’s mane to yellow and pink oyster, and they plan to expand into other products like leafy greens soon. Top chefs and restaurants in New York are taking notice and endorsing the products.

Since Prize, three new restaurants have come become clients, welcoming Smallhold farms into their kitchens. Smallhold also sells their products directly to grocery stores and intends to use connections from Prize to pursue expansion in major retail stores.

“Food+City introduced us to some amazing stakeholders and thought leaders from places like Whole Food and Walmart, and we are extremely happy we attended,” Carter says. The company is gaining momentum in the tech circles as well. The team benefited from the mentorship and guidance of the TechStars Boston program, which wrapped up in May 2017. They have also seen their team grow 100 percent since Prize and have expanded their farm with a custom-built shipping container to grow more mushrooms.

Mushrooms grown by Smallhold.


Innovation in food takes all forms, from making improvements to pallets to creating new avenues for delivering food or designing packaging that increases the shelf life of a food. Since 2015, we’ve hosted a challenge prize for startups in the food space that are challenging our notions of how the supply chain works. The 2018 Challenge Prize will be awarded on March 13, 2018. Be sure to visit foodandcity.org/prize to watch this year’s entrants become finalists and compete at SXSW Interactive 2018.

Market System: The Case of Early New York

Market System: The Case of Early New York

Petitioned in 1786 by prominent residents of New York City’s far-flung Catharine Street neighborhood, the city’s legislative body, known then as the Common Council, approved the building of Catharine Market.

As was customary, the interested parties furnished the grounds and construction costs. In subsequent decades, local and municipal funds were used to expand the facilities. This blend of local initiative and government response created a successful public market to serve as a community anchor and supply the provisioning needs of a working-class district.

By the late 1810s, Catharine Market — located in lower Manhattan, east of where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands — became one of New York’s most abundant fresh food emporia. Its 47 butchers, 25-plus fishmongers, more than 61 regular farmers and dozens of hucksters and informal vendors, as well as the many grocers who settled nearby, supplied an estimated 25,000 people. Depending on the season and day of the week, 2,000 to 5,000 shoppers visited each day.

Catharine Market was part of a tightly regulated system, which mandated that fresh food — meat in particular — could be sold only at municipally managed and owned marketplaces. As the population exploded from 30,000 to 160,000 between 1790 and 1825, the city responded by expanding the system from six to 11 neighborhood markets.

The market infrastructure of New York in the Early Republic was a smart system in spatial terms: Its facilities reached all areas, ensuring access to supplies for all residents. No matter where one lived a market could be found within a 10-minute walk. This was a critical factor in managing an effective food distribution system when New Yorkers, lacking refrigeration, had to shop as often as twice per week in the winter and up to six times per week in the abundant summer months.

Negotiations between vendors, customers and municipal officials ensured that the markets’ capacity and volume of trade closely corresponded with their neighborhoods’ population size, indicating a match between supply and demand. Overall, the Early Republican model of public markets responded to local demands about opening new markets or upgrading existing ones, and it cost little. Through its collection of fees — excise taxes at the beginning and rents later — the system largely paid for itself.


Between 1790 and 1825, as the population of Lower Manhattan grew, the public markets expanded — both in size and location — to meet the needs of New York residents. No matter where one lived a market could be found within a 10-minute walk, a critical factor in managing an effective food distribution system in the burgeoning urban center.

Critically, the market system provided the city’s main line of defense for food quality. It safeguarded the wholesomeness of supplies by penalizing those who sold decaying and spoiled provisions, while also instituting standards of cleanliness in the daily conditions and practice of food sales. For example, market clerks appointed by the city government enforced quality standards and fair trade practices at each location. Given their large assembly of independent vendors, public markets enabled customers to comparison-shop for price and quality. The vendors also exerted peer pressure, working with market clerks to punish violators of market laws and to uphold their market’s reputation. Moreover, the market butchers, the city’s most elite food purveyors, were artisan tradesmen who handled their vital, perishable goods with skill and care, ensuring high-quality products. Finally, given strict licensing policies and customers’ frequent purchases, neighborhood markets fostered repeated transactions and nurtured trust between buyers and sellers.

Beyond protecting public health, the system also set a baseline of equal access to food. Whether living in wealthier central districts or poorer outlying ones, New Yorkers provisioned their households under similar institutional settings. This continued even as the city grew. Developing a new neighborhood depended on extending this municipal service, funded in part from revenues earned at larger, centrally located markets.

The system was also efficient in not wasting supplies. Markets worked six days a week, from sunrise until early afternoon, except for Saturdays when they stayed open until late evening. On Sundays, only the fish stalls were open. Before refrigeration, the main constraint was perishability, so vendors — including butchers, hucksters and fishmongers who attended the markets daily, and regional farmers from rural New York and New Jersey who came less regularly — brought only as much merchandise as they expected to sell the same day.

Choice sales occurred early in the morning. By 10 a.m., the main business of the market was done. Then poor customers came to purchase cheaper, less desirable goods. At noon, secondary traders were allowed to join in, picking up market leftovers and peddling them at discounted prices after market hours and across the neighboring streets. Waste and byproducts from the key trade of butchering were recycled by an urban economy of noxious trades plied by tanneries and makers of soap, tallow and glue.

As with smart systems today, the success of the market system of early New York depended on the flow of information between key groups. The crux of the matter was the democratic process of petitioning and negotiation. All participants — residents, vendors, city officials — had to continuously (re)negotiate the location, size, layout, building material, basic rules and daily practice of the public markets. The process facilitated communication and coordination between neighborhood-based interests and citywide policies. Despite the messy politics (thanks to fragmented and competing interests), the system worked, because it was participatory, decentralized and coordinated to deliver workable compromises for everyone concerned.

For the model to continue to work, the Common Council had to adhere to its basic principles: that access to food was a public good, that fresh provisions should be sold at publicly managed markets instead of unregulated private shops, and that market facilities should be opened and expanded in response to local needs. Delays in infrastructural investments could undermine the welfare of customers and vendors, potentially jeopardizing the model’s integrity.

Indeed, from the 1830s, the system showed signs of malfunction. Demographic growth, a rising free-market ideology and weakened municipal commitment resulted in inadequate infrastructural expansion. First, unlicensed food sales outside of the municipal markets by street vendors and in private shops increased, chipping away from public market trade. As municipal spending priorities shifted, market construction came to a halt by 1837, leaving urbanizing northern districts without market facilities. In 1843, the city deregulated the food economy, allowing retailers to set up shops anywhere and without much regulatory oversight.

By mid-century, New York’s once-famous public markets were in tatters. Urbanization posed an enormous challenge — the population had skyrocketed to 500,000 by 1850. Yet instead of modernizing the market system, city officials turned to private enterprise to organize food access. Existing markets survived, but the earlier model of public market provisioning disintegrated.

In our own age of heightened debate about the role of government and private enterprise, it is worth recalling that American cities, New York especially, once depended on public market systems to feed their populations. By bringing the trade of life’s necessities under tight municipal regulation and oversight, and balancing the interests of customers and vendors, early New York managed a smart and successful market system that sustained the common good of access to food to all residents.

The Manhattan Refrigeration Company towers over the Gansevoort Market. The company, incorporated in 1894, operated nine cold storage warehouses. By 1906, a network of underground pipes connected the chilled warehouses, providing storage for shipments of perishable food that arrived on the steamers docked at the Chelsea and Gansevoort Piers nearby. “Mechanical refrigeration” was a new invention then. It situated the market as an area for food distribution–related businesses.

Now known as the Gansevoort Market Historic District, this space in today’s Meatpacking District was a food market throughout the 19th century. Near the Hudson River commercial waterfront, Gansevoort Market was ideally situated to transfer meat, dairy and produce from ships to the market and beyond. After the Civil War, the market space expanded and included Skelly & Fogarty’s Centennial Brewery on West 14th Street.

Buyers and sellers of regional produce and dairy also transacted their business there. In 1893, the New York Biscuit Company, which became Nabisco, added to the food-related business that crowded around the market space. You can imagine the combined aromas of manure and biscuits filling the streets.

The Gansevoort Market (1880 to 1928) has always been a mixed-use space, as you can see from this photograph taken in 1900. Low Italianate structures exist next to tall warehouses. Some of the metal canopies built for the transfer of meat into those warehouses still exist, as does some Belgian block paving. The Hudson River Railroad freight yards nearby provided transit for meat and other food items uptown and beyond Manhattan. Beginning in 1869, Cornelius Vanderbilt owned the rail line, along with the New York Central, and expanded the rail network to reach meatpackers in Chicago.

By 1880, other food markets in New York had fallen into disrepair, and vendors filling the streets had become a nuisance to pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. The city decided to create a new market space in the Gansevoort neighborhood to aggregate the commerce of farmers, buyers and sellers into one space. Originally developed for the sale of fruits and vegetables, Gansevoort eventually became the center of the meat market.

Horses transported most of the food from the piers and through the market. Buyers brought their wagons into the market, bringing filth and congestion with them. By 1900, almost 170,000 horses filled Manhattan’s streets. Over 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking companies filled the Gansevoort Market neighborhood, adding to the stench and manure.

Special Dispensation: Getting Food from Vending Machines

Special Dispensation: Getting Food from Vending Machines

More than a century ago, Horn & Hardart revolutionized American eating with the introduction of the Automat, an automated cafeteria where a nickel or two would buy a hot plate of macaroni and cheese or a chilled slice of lemon meringue pie.

It was a new concept of self-service dining: Customers would approach a wall of windowed compartments, insert a coin and take out a plate of freshly prepared food. Behind that wall, workers restocked the compartments with food prepared at an off-site commissary and shipped to as many as 40 Automats across New York City. There was a well-lit seating area where diners could enjoy their meals, along with Horn & Hardart’s famous hot coffee.

The first Automat — a precursor to both fast-food restaurants and vending machines — opened in 1902 in Philadelphia. But Automats quickly became associated with New York City, where citizens from all walks of life rubbed elbows over lunch and dinner amid the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

“The Automat offered really low prices, really good food, and clean and safe surroundings,” says food historian Laura Shapiro. Automats enjoyed their heyday through the 1930s but began to decline within 10 years, she explains. “After World War II, a lot of people moved to the suburbs, and people weren’t eating dinner in the city. The prices of everything went up, food went up, labor costs went up. They couldn’t keep up that trio of price, quality and nice surroundings.”

The last Automat closed in New York in 1991. But its spirit lives on in food vending machines that connect consumers with fast-food favorites, agricultural products, regional specialties and luxury and novelty foods.

Where the Automat was a revelation of the Industrial Revolution, today’s vending machines reflect the realities of a more mobile global populace whose access to food exists in disparate contexts. The foods distributed from contemporary iterations of the Automat aren’t meant to be enjoyed sitting at a table with real cutlery at traditional mealtimes. Instead, customers can access products at any hour.

Automats used to combine the ease of self-service with the sociability of a cafe. Click image to enlarge.

Audrey Hepburn chooses a sandwich at an Automat.

Eggs are available in Japan from machines that resemble Automats.

In Germany, consumers can access meats, cheeses and other deli items with a push of a button.

This can be a boon to rural consumers who don’t have 24-hour shops nearby, as well as to farmers seeking additional points of contact to distribute their products. You see this with egg vending machines in Japan, a pecan farm in Central Texas boasting a vending machine stocked with nuts and full-sized pecan pies, and the Applestone Meat Company in Accord, New York, which operates a 24/7 butcher shop called the Meat-O-Mat inside its meat-processing plant. The machines feature hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, pork and lamb in various cuts and are restocked every day.

In a sign that such machines could be a disruptive force in agriculture, a vending machine in Japan called Chef’s Farm can produce 60 heads of lettuce per day using 40-watt light bulbs. Designed for use in restaurants, the machine can grow up to five types of vegetables on multiple seed shelves in a temperature-controlled environment.

Vending machines also reflect regional foodways. Machines in China chill live hair crabs in a sort of suspended animation to ensure their freshness and preserve the flavor of the claws. Sake vending machines in Japan showcase rice from the Niigata prefecture. And machines in France dispense fresh-baked baguettes, Comté cheese and andouillete sausages.

These machines can even be instructive. Take the edible insect vending machine at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Houston. Patrons can snack on chocolate-covered bugs and chips made with ground cricket flour while learning about how other cultures incorporate insects into their diets.

For eaters who value convenience, there are plenty of options for mechanized grab-and-go food, from pizza in Italy to salads in jars in Chicago and piping-hot burgers and croquettes in Dutch FEBO shops. With walls of coin-operated windows displaying hot snacks, FEBO shops closely resemble the Automat and elicit similar feelings of nostalgia.

“I lived in a little town near den Haag when I was 10 or 11 years old,” says Julie Ann Holden of Austin, Texas. “I took the train to school every day and would frequently stop at the automat in Central Station for a Kaassoufflé [a kind of Dutch fried quesadilla].” There are even vending machines for luxury food items like caviar and champagne, perfectly chilled for immediate consumption at holiday parties or to give as presents to the most discriminating people on shoppers’ lists.

Making a roast? Swing by the Meat-O-Mat, a 24/7 vending machine butcher shop in Accord, New York. Click image to enlarge.

Fresh pecan pie is available at a Berdoll Pecan Candy & Gift Company in Cedar Creek, Texas.

These aren’t your standard chips. At the Museum of Natural Sciences in Houston, cricket-based snacks are part of the learning experience.

As in the Automats, these machines are replenished regularly, but few offer dining tables and chairs. Instead, the foods are meant to be consumed while in transit, whether while waiting for a flight in an airport terminal or walking the streets of Amsterdam. This extreme automation — such as at kiosks like EatZa in San Francisco and New York, where diners place orders for custom-made quinoa bowls via iPads and retrieve their freshly made meals from sterile compartments — amplifies how today’s vending machines speak to a different set of needs and desires for today’s consumer than the somewhat social Automat of yesteryear.

Gone are the days in which people sought out a full meal and maybe a little conversation at an Automat diner. But the dream of quick, easy access to all sorts of food is alive and well. At any hour of the day, People can get the food they want and need, from comfort food to hard-to-access ingredients. It’s not difficult to imagine that, along with meal-kit, grocery, and restaurant delivery services, contemporary vending machines could be instrumental in further disrupting the way our food comes to us.

 There’s going to be an Automat movie! Keep up with the film’s progress at automatmovie.com.

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.