Your Food: Up for Grabs?

Your Food: Up for Grabs?

Don’t panic, but your food is about to appear on your plate in surprising and unexpected ways.

More than ever, food delivery is becoming faster, fresher and more personal. Our food supply chain looks transitory as it shifts to accommodate changes in where our food comes from and where it’s going. The traditional food movers — large logistics, distribution and transportation companies — are now in the company of small, scrappy, food delivery services.

These changes are the result of the aggregation of big data and consumers who are willing to forego the shopping experience for the shipping experience. Both the data and the consumers who create that data have come together to transform our food supply chain. For the better, we think. Just about everything is up for grabs. Farmers look more like engineers, food is fresher and those who deliver our food are coming from unexpected directions.

This issue, our third, takes a close look at some of the shifts from imagination to reality. Food waste is a top concern now as consumers are either being shamed by the amount of food left on their plates or rallied to find new ways to use food waste. If we accept the fact that we can’t eliminate the waste in our supply chain, we can turn our attention to ways we can put it to use, either as a source of energy or repurposed as new food or non-food products. Ari LeVaux takes us to the land of biodigesters and ugly fruit jam. Jen Wong offers surprising ways in which food waste reappears in new shapes and forms, such as coconut shell tiles.

When two Norwegian shipping firms, Yarrao and Kongsberg Gruppe, announced their electric, driverless ships, the prospect of a global food supply chain that doesn’t require bunker fuel (the lowest grade of fossil fuel) suggests we may soon see more sustainable ways to ship food around the world. Providing context for this new model for shipping food is our story about canals and barges, the original slow movers of food along inland waterways. David Leftwich shares his story of barges that travel up and down the Mississippi in this moment of battery-powered cargo. And Jeannette Vaught’s history of cattle logistics reminds us that the tracks of our food have been visible on our landscape for centuries.

The Norwegian vessels also promise robot loading and unloading of cargo, one of the many human displacements occurring within our food supply chain. Rachel Wharton’s story about robots and Melanie Haupt’s images of vending machines that serve us our food suggest that the experience of eating may lose its deeply human connection.

To give us some perspective of how we got here, Laurie Zapalac explains how a mundane container of food was invented because of a challenge prize offered by Napoleon in the late 19th century. Cans today are smarter, carrying much more than food. They carry the history of their contents, and some contain sensors for tracking and tracing a can throughout the supply chain. Zapalac sheds light on how we’re getting a better view of a more transparent food supply chain.

Jane Black’s story about urban agriculture tells us more about the complexities and questions that accompany this new way to feed cities. And if you thought urban agriculture was the way to create Smart Cities, read Gergely Baics’ story about a 19th-century smart city. Cory Leahy’s deconstruction of wartime cookbooks on ration use brings new meaning to ways we might attack the food waste problem.

We do our part to help change how we feed our cities through our annual Food+City Challenge Prize. Each year we see more and more startups that are finding ways to improve food logistics. See our description of what these startups are doing to get food faster and fresher to our cities. And finally, check out our recommendations for cool books and nerdy websites.

Food Movers: Lock, Stock and Barges

Food Movers: Lock, Stock and Barges

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Barges: A Long Legacy

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

The Grand Canal of China

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

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

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

Old map of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.

Old map of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.

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

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

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

From Hoof to Highway

From Hoof to Highway

Since the Civil War, beef has been central to Texas’ agricultural economy. The movement of all those cattle, from ranch to slaughterhouse, shaped the state’s modern highway system — literally.

Fourteen-year-old Frank King, a cattle drover in the late 19th century, was responsible for moving cattle through Texas and points north. Back then, men and boys on horseback rode through the fields, plains and hills of what’s now the center of the country, forming trails that remained long after the last of the cattle drives — trails that became some of this country’s most well-traveled highways.

Conceptions of Texas, for natives and non-Texans alike, often begin with sepia-tinged images of cattle drives, visions of sprawling ranches and the smoky smell of slow-cooked beef briskets. Since the Civil War, beef has steadfastly remained at the center of Texas culture and its agricultural economy. But while beef is no longer the state’s largest export product, the paths taken by beef cattle to go from range to market had a lasting impact on paths developed for human travel. The legacies of moving cattle to market on the hoof still shape how people, animals and products move into and around Texas.

“I was only fourteen, but had been learnin’ the work on the Bill Chisholm Ranch on the Canadian River in the Chickasaw Nation,” recalled a much-older Frank King in an oral history recorded in the 1930s and housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. As he recounted the mechanization of his “Old West” way of life, he noted the stark changes he’d seen in the previous 60 years. “The young fellers can’t vision the broad Plains, now covered with wheat fields” — in the 1930s when he recorded these memories — “…as once bein’ the home of millions of buffalo grazin’ and runnin’ across ’em, lookin’ like great big black waves as they moved from North to South, changin’ with the seasons.”

Managing a herd of hundreds or even thousands of animals required a kind of choreography. A team of drovers, as cowboys were more accurately known, spread out around the herd, keeping strays from wandering too far off course. They were on the hoof together for weeks at a time, covering distances of hundreds of miles between ranch and beef processor. Image from “Cattle Drive,” from Flint Hills Cowboys, Jim Hoy. Click on the image to enlarge.

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947); A coyote trapped at the carcass of a range critter. Three Circles Ranch, Texas.; 1906; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX; LC.S59.215

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947); The loading yards at the railroad station; one of the first shipping points to be established on the Texas plains. Lubbock, Texas.; 1910; Nitrate negative; Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; LC.S59.585

Today, those waves moving along the north-south corridors of Texas are made of motor vehicles. Interstate 35 is the main road that runs north and south through Texas, forming a highway spine from Mexico through the American heartland all the way north to Lake Superior. Yet the very things that make it modern — its expanses of pavement and high speeds — also obscure the unique history of this strip of ground in Texas. When we drive up I-35 in Texas today, we are following a movement pattern carved out by bovine hooves — first by wild bison, as King remembered, and then by ranched cattle. That’s hard to imagine now, as the concrete hums under the tires and the landscape whizzes by in a blur.

Unbeknownst to most motorists today, including truckers moving cattle through various points of the beef commodity chain, Interstate 35 overlays the same path taken by cattle drovers, the first men on horseback to guide Texas cattle to northern markets in the 19th century. Men like Frank King. “When I started to ridin’ them North Texas ranges, barbed wire hadn’t been invented,” he remembered. “There was nothin’ to hold cows together but cowboys and hosses.”

Topography helped, too. King and his fellow drovers followed existing wild bison trails that hugged the geological guide of the Balcones Escarpment. The drovers were hired to walk Texas cattle to railroad depots in Missouri and Kansas, but in the early days there was no set route. The cattle themselves found and followed these tamped-down bison trails. “It was a wonderful sight to see herds of them lanky old cattle strung out along the trail. Folks didn’t drive cattle in them days,” he noted. “They moved ’em, lettin’ ’em graze along in the right direction ’til they reached the northern markets or grazin’ grounds.” Even for someone who was there, the past seemed very far away.

Lexicon IconChisholm Trail

The trail known as the Chisholm Trail guided Texas cattle northward through Indian Territory, no matter where the cattle came from in Texas. It was first marked out by a Cherokee man named Jesse Chisholm to provide safe passage for cattle moving north from the Red River to Abilene. Later, the Chisholm Trail came to also include a route from San Antonio to the Red River, and today the route is mostly overlaid by Texas Highway 81.


In contrast to the well-established east-west corridor known as the Old San Antonio Road — the Spanish Texas version of El Camino Real — north/south routes in Texas were inhospitable to Anglo settler colonists in the 1820s moving into what is now Texas. The east-west routes of the Old San Antonio Road were a series of trails blazed in the late 17th century to ferry people, animals and commodities from Louisiana deep into the Spanish Empire. But the route north from San Antonio remained remarkably unchanged, even in the days of the Texas Republic and Texas’ entry into the United States in 1845, and was used almost exclusively by bison and indigenous nations. More passable long-distance routes beyond El Camino Real didn’t emerge until after the Civil War.

This timing had much to do with the post–Civil War militarization of the western plains against indigenous people, which opened up territories to settler colonists. At this point, any new route across Texas was designed to funnel resources toward burgeoning markets. Yet even in this moment of rapid modernization, the most enduring route from southern to northern Texas was formed by bovine hooves with a twist: they were beeves, not bison.

From the 1840s to the 1890s, cattle moved northward from Mexico and Texas on the hoof, grazing on lush grassland prairies during autumn before boarding a train in winter to feed the meat demands of industrial cities to the east. The Shawnee Trail, an indigenous and bison-maintained trailway that prefigured I-35, was the first popular route to bring Texas cattle to northern markets in the 1840s and 1850s because it connected with rail and port systems in Missouri.

King rode the trails during the rise of ranching in the 1870s. As Anglo settlers took over more and more indigenous land, “there was no fences at first and cattle herds was located on ranges and kept there by line riders and sign riders,” effectively grazing within the living fences made by King and his fellow hired hands.

The financial stakes were high for this fast-growing industry. After the Civil War, Texas cattle numbered in the millions, and postwar cattle capitalists eagerly resumed the pre-war Shawnee Trail route in 1866. As railroads crept further west, cattle entrepreneur Joseph McCoy opened a depot in Abilene, Kansas. This reorientation to a more western terminus inaugurated the famed Chisholm Trail, guiding Texas cattle north straight through Oklahoma Indian Territory into Kansas. The Texas State Historical Association estimates that more than 1.5 million cattle tamped down the Chisholm Trail between 1866 and 1873; other sources estimate that more than 5 million cattle wound up in Kansas over the life of the trail into the 1890s. The powerful trail-making capabilities of thousands upon thousands of bovine hooves made parts of Texas navigable by settlers for the first time.

When cattle arrived in Kansas, they rested and grazed on the tallgrass prairie before loading up on trains. The locations of the northern railheads were ideally situated near grasslands to fatten cattle before their final journey to slaughter — a circumstance that kept cattle traveling out of Texas by hoof even after railways had been well established in the state. Indeed, Texas rails were plentiful in the era of on-the-hoof mobility. Rail access across eastern Texas flourished between 1870 and 1880, when the number of rail miles more than quadrupled, from 700 to 3,293. Much of this was passenger rail that connected towns to cities.

Connecting goods to markets was harder. In the 1870s, the explosion of Texas railways did not immediately affect cattle drives, in part because freight fees were far higher than drovers’ costs and most railroads were built in the eastern part of the state. This left the Chisholm Trail mostly free of rail crossings. The early Texas rail system was simply not designed to move beef north, but rather to move profitable cotton crops east and move people from town to town. Rails revolutionized human mobility across Texas, enabling many Texans to break free from their small towns when roads were few and far between. But as rails expanded east and west, cattle still cut the most important northward routes.

Texas Traffic: Cattle to Cars

The routes cattle drovers took laid the foundation for many of Texas’ modern highways. The ground, tamped down by decades of cattle drives — and millennia of migrating bison — gave way to roads in the middle of the 20th century. Interstate 35, the main north-south artery that bisects the state, follows the old Shawnee Trail. Click on the image to enlarge.


The Texas State Historical Association estimates that more than 1.5 million cattle tamped down the Chisholm Trail between 1866 and 1873; other sources estimate that more than 5 million cattle wound up in Kansas over the life of the trail into the 1890s.

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947); Overlooking the Canadian River While Cowpunchers Put a Herd of LS Cattle Across It; 1907; Nitrate negative; Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; LC.S59.489
January 1965 aerial photo of San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas, with Interstate Highway 35 bridge under construction.


In the 1880s, barbed wire began to replace men on horseback as the preferred method for keeping ranch cattle contained, and rails expanded westward into the state. By 1890, rails and fences blocked the Chisholm Trail, helping to bring the cattle drive era to an end. In 1900, the movement of cattle across Texas was no longer a long grazing walk, but rather a journey of multiple short segments. For example, North Texas cattle raisers would drive their cattle a short distance to Fort Worth on the hoof. Then, a major meatpacker like Swift and Co. would buy cattle from the Fort Worth stockyards and put them on a train to one of the 20 feed yards they ran in Texas. The last stop on the trail was the slaughterhouse, where the meat was packed and shipped by refrigerated rail car to markets across the nation.

Cattlemen no longer had to bear financial responsibility for their animals during the long walk northward. For men like King, this spelled the end of a way of life. “The younger generation will never have the thrills and experiences of the old-time fellers before, during, and immediately after the wire fence days, when a cowhand didn’t have anything to do but ride them side-wheel ponies after cows.” Cowhands still guided cattle a short distance to local rail yards, but for half a century — from about 1900 to after World War II — the grand and ancient bovine trails through Texas were barely used at all.

The Shawnee Trail was reborn as Interstate 35 through Texas in the early 1960s. It joined a 24,000-mile network of rural roads in Texas that was paved between 1945 and 1955. Turning the Shawnee trail into Interstate 35 opened this route back up to cattle, but it also heralded the end of cattle walking across Texas. By 1965, flatbed semitrailers brought cattle north from their home ranches — whether to be fed in a Panhandle lot, to graze on the Tallgrass Hills of Kansas or to be distributed as meat products to grocers and food producers around the country.

Roads like Interstate 35 reproduced some of the oldest navigable routes that bovine critters had used to cross Texas for centuries — routes that had been generally unavailable to them since the end of the 19th century, but to which they returned on wheels, no longer on the hoof. This pattern of movement from ranch to lot, facilitated by the rural and interstate highway system, still describes how beef cattle move around and out of Texas.

Trail Boss

Margaret Heffernan Borland ran a large cattle operation from Victoria, Texas, with her husband, Alexander, in the 1860s. She took over the business when he died of yellow fever in 1867. Within a few years she grew her herd to a whopping 10,000 head and regularly sent herds of 2,500 or more up to Kansas railheads. She procured and organized the supplies and hired the laborers for these drives. In 1873, she led a drive from Victoria to Wichita herself. Like many at that time, she caught an illness along the trail. She died shortly after arriving in Kansas.


Frank King witnessed a wholesale transformation of the way cattle were raised and sold. These changes were hard to miss because they were geographical as much as they were logistical: Indian territories shrank and disappeared, fence posts appeared on landscapes and rail beds rose up across well-tamped trails. King did not live to see the day cattle were loaded up on highway haulers, but he did observe one way in which rural roads affected the lives of cattle workers in 20th-century Texas. While cattle droving was “sometimes scary when the Comanches were on the prod,” it was not “half as dangerous as it is nowadays tryin’ to cross a street or highway on foot when a band of modern Apaches is passin’ along armed with one of them high-powered automobiles. Personally,” he added, “I’ll take my chances with the Comanches.” Perhaps he had an inkling that paved roads would spell the end of his kind of work for good.

Change in the cattle industry is harder to see now. While the geography of modern cattle logistics has remained steady, changes affecting the beef industry have occurred in the less-visible areas of veterinary medicine and nutrition, market regulation and animal reproduction.

King, who experienced an era of incredible change from the back of a horse, could not foresee the days of the 75-mile-per-hour cattle trail, just as the Shawnee, Apache and Comanche residents of Texas could not have foreseen the transformation of their bison trails into commercial cattle routes. But for the last 500 years, the route they followed has remained the same.

By 1965, flatbed trailers brought cattle north from ranches to feed lots or processors in North Texas or as far as Kansas over a new network of Texas highways paved between 1945 and 1955. Photo: Martin Phippard Collection.

Food for Thought: Smart City Tools, Then and Now

Food for Thought: Smart City Tools, Then and Now

Food technology — gizmos such as blockchain, sensors, taste algorithms, genomic tracking — is a hot topic these days, generously funded by venture capitalists. But food technology has been around for decades. Can openers, anyone?


No one would dispute that a GPS tracker is sexier than a simple can opener. But those early inventors deserve credit for laying the foundation for today’s innovations. After all, it took almost 50 years after the can was invented before someone made an opener for it. Our everyday can opener — the rotating serrated-wheel device — first appeared in 1870, and it’s still in everyone’s kitchen drawer, nearly 150 years later.

Food storage technology developed from clay amphorae and wooden barrels to polyethylene drums with lever-lock rings for transporting food commodities such as cooking oil. Today, wooden barrels appeal to artisan fermenters and brewers who embrace the flavor-enhancing properties of wood. Sacks and bags continue to transport our food from the grocery store to our house or from the coffee plantation in Kenya to our roaster in Brooklyn. Some are still made of cloth, paper and hemp, while others are big, woven-plastic buffle sacks that optimize space in container ships.

Weights and measures are the quants of food markets. Beginning as bowls and rocks in the Indus River Valley, weighing scales used balance mechanisms, such as this early 19th century balance scale, until the digital age arrived in the early 1980s. Not quite the graceful scales of the past, these digital scales are more sensitive and adapt to multiple units of measure.

Maintaining its utility throughout the ages is the meat hook, the hand tool for butchers and meat processors. The only difference between this 19th century hook and today’s version is the handle: one is wood and the other plastic. Some technology endures the test of time.

How to Make Do in Wartime

How to Make Do in Wartime

Rations. The word itself conjures up images of shortages, insufficiency and want. No fruit. Limited amounts of sugar and flour. Small bits of tough meat. As World War II interrupted agricultural production and food distribution in the United Kingdom, simple staples — nevermind specialty or exotic items — became scarce.

Food rations in England during World War II were hardly luxurious. But helpful hints, recipes and positive, patriotic messaging from the Ministry of Food encouraged citizens and families to feel that their sacrifices were a valuable contribution to the war effort. This painting by Leonora K. Green illustrates the weekly rations for two people.

To keep a healthy population that could contribute to the war effort, the British government, like many other governments before it during tough times, instituted a system of controls that limited, but aimed to equalize, what people could buy — regardless of their socioeconomic status. Along with the rations, the Ministry of Food enlisted home economists to help families effectively manage their food budgets. These experts also offered ideas and recipes for making the most of what was available, both in terms of flavor and satisfaction, but also for national morale. Books and pamphlets from the era encouraged home cooks with reassuring language, inviting a patriotic perspective of the hardships.

While long lines were a daily reality at markets, and meats and treats were in short supply, everyone was entitled to the basics. Each citizen had his or her own ration book. Adults were apportioned a certain quantity of meats, fats, sugars, tea, cheese, eggs and milk (either liquid or powdered). Children were allotted their share and enjoyed the occasional orange or portion of whole milk for their growing bodies. Staying healthy was an important part of the war effort.

Other scarce items were distributed through a points system, which allowed consumers some choice and the ability to splurge on fruits, sweets or finer cuts of meat from time to time.

One of the biggest changes during the war for home cooks was the introduction of “National flour.” Before the war, England imported up to 70 percent of its grains (or cereals, as they were known), but the waterways around the island nation were dangerous and not easily passable. German U-boats regularly attacked ships bound for the U.K. in an effort to starve the Brits into submission.

In 1942, the Ministry of Food introduced National flour, a coarser grind that included 15 percent more whole grain wheat than the refined white flour available before the war. It also contained “diluent” grains — including barley, oats and rye — and powdered milk for additional calcium. The government’s goal was twofold: reduce import losses and improve the health of Britons, “even under the handicap of war.”

Food-related messaging from the Ministry of Food reminded consumers why they were sacrificing and encouraged good eating habits, despite the hardships.

For a population that loves its baked goods, National flour and the tough, grayish “National loaf” — the only bread available in bakeries — took some getting used to. The Ministry’s home economists published leaflets and newspaper columns with handy hints:

Cooking Hints for National Flour

National flour can be used just as well as white flour in cakes, puddings, pastry, for thickening soups and stews, but remember the following points: —
1. Use a little more liquid for mixing, i.e. mix to a softer consistency.
2. Bake, boil or steam a little longer.
3. Add a little more seasoning to savoury dishes.
4. Add more salt and water when making bread.
5. Use a little extra flour for thickening sauces.
6. Use a little less sugar for sweet dishes.

In fact, the Ministry more actively encouraged the use of an alternative and much more readily available ingredient for its population’s pastry needs: potatoes.

Song of Potato Pete

Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato (in a salad) cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships!

English food bloggers have shared their experiences cooking with wartime rations. And watch a charming newsreel-style film about rations in Britain during WWII.

The lowly potato was elevated to a key ingredient during the war years. It grew in abundance on the British Isles and was filling during lean years. “Potatoes help to protect you from illness,” says a leaflet from the Ministry of Food. “Potatoes give you warmth and energy. Potatoes are cheap and home-produced. So why stop at serving them once a day? Have them twice, or even three times — for breakfast, dinner and supper.”

P’s for Protection Potatoes afford;
O’s for the Ounces of Energy stored;
T’s for the Tasty, and Vitamins rich in;
A’s for the Art to be learnt in the Kitchen.
T’s for Transport we need not demand;
O’s for old England’s Own Food from the Land;
E’s for the Energy eaten by you;
S’s for the Spuds which will carry us through!

Potatoes were among many edible plants that could be found in British “Victory Gardens.” The government commandeered sports fields and golf courses for planting and encouraged people to use every bit of soil they had access to — from decorative gardens to small edge plots and even containers on apartment rooftops — to cultivate household vegetable and herb gardens. Leeks, turnips and swedes (rutabagas) were popular choices that grew well in the chilly British climate.

In addition to managing ingredients, home cooks also had to worry about conserving fuel. Using the oven for multiple items at once (the casserole AND the pudding) was crucial. Alternative methods for conserving fuel included starting a braise on the stove, then finishing in a cooling oven once the baked goods were done. Or using a hay box, a box with room for a cooking pot, lined with hay and covered; the insulation preserved the heat in the pot for several hours, until the stew or soup was done.

Schoolgirls helped farmers in Buckinghamshire to harvest potatoes. (1943) Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS. Click image to enlarge.

“More or less, this simple but surprisingly little-practiced rule is true in using an oven: try to fill every inch of space in it,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher in “How to Cook a Wolf,” her handbook of sorts for living happily during trying times. “Even if you do not want baked apples for supper, put a pan of them with whatever is baking at from 240 to 400 degrees. They will be all the better for going slowly, but as long as their skins do not scorch they can cook fast. They make a good meal in themselves, with cream if you have any, or milk heated with some cinnamon and nutmeg in it, and buttered toast and tea.”

No ingredient was wasted. The water used to boil vegetables was saved for soup base. Leafy stems from root vegetables were neither tossed nor composted but valued as a vegetable in their own right. The Ministry of Food emphasized the nutritional importance of green veggies and encouraged families to eat one raw vegetable per day.

Creative substitutions were common a way to adapt. “You can make many a good tricked dish, with a few mushrooms, some leftover rice, and a dash of wine, if you have one of those frightening, efficient cans of ‘rich brown meat gravy’ on hand,” Fisher writes, inspiring readers to use what they have to its best effect. “It is spurious, maybe. It is chicanery. But it is economical and useful psychologically, especially if you are three miles from a market and the siren blows just as you are pumping up your bike-tire.”

The British system of rations lasted well beyond the end of World War II, ending in 1954. But the effects of rationing were largely positive. “The rich got less to eat, which did them no harm and the poor, so far as the supply would allow, got a diet adequate for health, with free orange juice, cod liver oil, extra milk and other things for mothers and children,” wrote Lord Boyd Orr, post-war head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in his memoirs.

The nutritional playing field had been leveled across the classes, and Brits had no choice but to eat their vegetables.

Seafood Traceability Nets New Benefits

Seafood Traceability Nets New Benefits

Combatting “fish fraud” and ensuring sound fishing practices are two reasons net-to-plate tracking is on the rise. But high-tech tracing satisfies consumers’ curiosity, too.

Does it matter if your sashimi is not the fish it purports to be — or that your salmon was grown on a farm in Ireland, but labeled wild-caught from the Pacific?

When amplified globally, the answer is a resounding yes. In the last few years, DNA analysis of seafood samples from markets and restaurants has helped expose the prevalence of “fish fraud.” Many industry insiders assert that combating the problem hinges on one thing: end-to-end traceability.


Management of fisheries has been a long-standing practice. The Venetian Republic, for instance, enacted protective laws as early as 1173, taking the view that the Venetian lagoon and its resources were the critical underpinning of the Venetian economy. In the mid-20th century, global industrialization of fishing led to stock depletion in U.S. waters and ushered in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1972; revised 1996). This legislation created a complex quota and landings reporting system to manage and monitor the harvest.

Separately, health and safety laws for handling food products in processing, transport, and at point of sale leave their own paper trail. Bringing the records from the two ends of the supply chain together into an integrated system is more complex than it might seem, but new technology is helping to make this possible.

Red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico are tagged to make it easy to find out how fresh the fish really is.


Much credit goes to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for raising awareness about the state of the commercial seafood industry. In the 1990s, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was formed to protect the world’s oceans by working directly with the seafood industry, encouraging best practices among all participants in a fishery. Companies that meet MSC criteria can carry the blue MSC ecolabel on their products and in branding. The MSC Chain of Custody Standard applies to all suppliers, processors and vendors handling MSC-certified seafood, and MSC performs periodic auditing to verify those standards are being followed.

Most major supermarket chains now require that the fish products they buy have an environmental certification or be associated with a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP). Yet problems persist. Continuing concerns over illegally harvested and mislabeled seafood, as well as human rights abuses in the seafood industry, led to the founding in 2002 of FishWise. The NGO now leads the charge for electronic, interoperable systems for end-to-end traceability that implicate all players in the commercial seafood supply chain. In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order to combat illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.

This brought about a new traceability program for imported fish and fish products especially vulnerable to IUU fishing and/or seafood fraud, with a compliance deadline of January 1, 2018. Additional legislation on the federal and state levels may follow, in part as a protective measure for one of the country’s oldest industries.

At The Lobster Co. in Arundel, Maine, workers pack live lobsters into a foam container to be exported to China. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)
Fresh carp caught in France arrive in Billingsgate between 4 and 8 a.m. Illegible labels are the norm for much of the seafood sold in large wholesale markets around the world. Some fish are mislabeled, not intentionally, but because of mistaken identity — dozens of fish look can look alike to an inexperienced fish trader.


As the hub of the New England commercial seafood industry, Boston is a rich testing ground for innovation in seafood traceability and tracking across the supply chain. Seafood restaurants and retailers have been particularly adept at responding to consumers’ concerns and capitalizing on growing interest in food production. For example, menus at Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 list not only the name and place of origin for each shellfish offering but also its producer. Giving previously undifferentiated products, such as oysters, a provenance is a first step in building brands and customer affinity.

Based on the idea that consumers care about the source of their fish as well as the livelihood of the New England fishermen who provide it, seafood company Red’s Best has developed a traceability program for the products it sources and sells. Labels include QR codes, readable with smartphone apps, linking customers to information about where and how the fish was caught and about the life of the fisherman who caught it. On the tracking front, Maine Coast Lobster, which ships live lobsters globally from Boston’s Logan Airport, places sensors that record time, temperature and humidity within its specially designed shipping boxes. If a problem is detected upon arrival, data can be uploaded via USB and correlated with logistics records to pinpoint the problem in the transport process.

Boxes containing live lobsters are loaded into an air cargo container at Halifax International Airport bound for China.
Red’s Best places QR codes on product packaging so customers can link to learn not only where and how fish is caught, but also a bit about the life of the New England fisherman who caught it.
In a Red’s Best fish case at the Boston public market, labels display catch data, including fisherman, vessel, port of unloading, gear used to catch the fish and even a suggested cooking method. The center label notes a species of underutilized fish, encouraging consumers to try something they might have overlooked. Click the image to enlarge.


Launching one of the most fully integrated solutions is BackTracker, the Boston-based startup with a data-driven seafood traceability system to eliminate operational errors and bad practices that can occur at any number of steps along the supply chain. Founder and CEO Michael Carroll is a former commercial fisherman who obtained a graduate degree in economics before becoming a fish buyer for a major supermarket chain and then working on fishery certification. He understands the commercial seafood industry, including its eccentricities, in a way that few people do. BackTracker accesses official government harvest records and uses them for an important secondary purpose: following the records through each participant in the supply chain — first receiver, processor, wholesaler and retailer — and verifying participant-provided output data at each step.

“If a landing record lists 10,000 pounds of haddock from a particular vessel on a particular day, and we know that haddock has a 36 percent yield when processed, we shouldn’t see more than 3,600 pounds of haddock tied to that landing from the processor,” Carroll explains.

As anyone who has watched an episode of “Wicked Tuna” knows, the fishing industry is a competitive business. While GPS technology makes it possible to collect data about where fish are being caught, for now traceability begins with what is reported at the dock.

In this context, unbiased third-party certification has its advantages. All data is encrypted and ownership remains with the parties who provide it. BackTracker issues unique tamperproof codes as records of verification for each individual package in a processed lot, and the app for managing the process is flexible. “Trade partners can determine collectively which information is shared downstream and which is kept confidential,” Carroll notes.

BackTracker’s pilot system is now underway in Boston with participants from each step in the supply chain, including first receiver Atlantic Coast Seafood, processor/wholesaler Ipswich Shellfish Group and supermarket chain Wegmans. The system also has support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries’ Seafood Marketing Program. Focusing on New England haddock, redfish and pollock, the program will enable product differentiation and help reduce the amount of imported groundfish sold erroneously as “local,” in turn increasing ex-vessel values — price paid for the catch upon unloading — for fishermen.

Over time, end-to-end traceability should also help reveal how well quotas and other regulations are working. Before you know it, that photo you post on Instagram of your haddock sandwich will tell a story not only about what’s on your plate but also about the entire supply chain. Solutions like these are one way of ensuring that sustainably harvested fish, and the industry players who source them, are at the table.