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.

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.

Urban Agriculture: Can it Feed Our Cities?

Urban Agriculture: Can it Feed Our Cities?

From rooftop gardens and indoor vertical farms to community plots and edible landscapes, urban agriculture is on the rise. As more of the world’s population resides in cities, city farming is touted as a sustainable solution. But are there enough rooftops to make it work?

New Jersey has been known since the late 19th century as the Garden State. But today its 12th largest city, Camden, is anything but lush and green. It is the country’s poorest city — an astonishing 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — and one of the country’s most dangerous. A recent Rolling Stone profile of the city began: “The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked.”

And yet.

A small food economy is blossoming in Camden. AeroFarms, an indoor agriculture firm, plans to break ground as early as this year on a 78,000-square-foot vertical farm that would grow 12 stories of red-leaf lettuce, kale, bok choy and more.

Meanwhile, more than 100 of the city’s thousands of vacant lots have been transformed into community gardens. In 2009, at the dawn of enthusiasm for urban farming and during the last available year data were collected, gardeners at 44 sites harvested almost 31,000 pounds of vegetables. Had it not been an unusually wet and cold summer, it might have been more.

It’s all very inspiring: Whizz-bang technology that offers healthier food and much-needed jobs. Communities taking charge of their food destiny in a place that the almighty market has neglected. (Camden, population 77,000, has just one supermarket within its city limits.) But it’s not only struggling cities that see the promise of urban farming.

Urban agriculture — which by definition includes indoor farms, rooftop and backyard gardens, community plots and edible landscapes — is often hailed as a solution to daunting global challenges. It addresses climate change by allowing food to be grown close to home, rather than hauled thousands of miles. It could affect obesity and chronic disease by making healthy options more available. And urban farming could help feed a quickly growing world population, because many of the predicted 9 billion people on the planet (by 2050) are increasingly headed to cities.


But can urban farming sustainably feed cities? A close look under the agri-hood suggests that it’s a lot more complicated than advertised.

For starters, let’s examine the history. The Industrial Revolution quickly and dramatically severed ties between consumers and the farmers who grew their food. Efficient train networks transported food more rapidly, from farther away, and more people moved away from rural areas to cities for work in factories. Since then, there have been regular waves of enthusiasm for urban gardening in the West, motivated by social reformers, who made a moral connection between the land and healthy living, or by the innate human desire for self-sufficiency.

To wit: One of the Salvation Army’s first initiatives in late 19th-century London was “farm colonies” designed to help city folks feed themselves. Beginning in the 20th century, Israel’s early Zionists created thousands of small urban farms. But the only examples of urban farming feeding substantial numbers of people occur when there is little other choice.

In Israel, urban farms soon gave way to rural kibbutzim (collectives based around agriculture). The United States saw Americans plant more than 5 million household plots during World War I and 20 million in World War II. Those 1940s victory gardens produced 9 million pounds of produce each year — what amounted to 44 percent of the U.S. harvest. (Read more about how people cope with food shortages during wartime in our story about rations.) But when the war ended, citizens largely abandoned their gardens and returned to the convenience of shopping at the supermarket.

World War II: Glass balls for forcing early cabbages are placed in position at a Salvation Army farming colony in Hadleigh, Essex, 1940. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)


Proponents of urban farming say this time could be different. Besides the global challenges of climate change and population, there is wide consumer demand for locally grown food. Moreover, technology that makes urban farming more productive and more sustainable could tip the balance. The technologies include lightweight beds that can be stacked, efficient LED lights and hydroponics and aeroponics, by which plants grow without soil and fed a calculated diet of nutrients by water circulating beneath them.

“By some estimates, we will need 50 percent more food by 2050,” says David Rosenberg, CEO of AeroFarms. “We need transformational changes. Vertical farming does more with less.”

A decade ago, not even one of these so-called vertical farms existed. Today, there are dozens of them — one in Singapore, one in a former bomb shelter in London and one in Japan, built by researchers to provide safe food after the devastating Fukushima earthquake in 2011. That farm, formerly a semiconductor factory, now produces 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.

AeroFarms operates nine vertical farms. Its largest, in Newark, 90 miles northeast of Camden, produces 2 million pounds of leafy greens each year. The 70,000-square-foot complex is a poster child for futuristic farming. Inside, so-called grow tables are stacked 12 levels high and enveloped by a glow of pink LED light. (Plants, it turns out, require little from the yellow part of the light spectrum, which requires greater amounts of power to produce.)

Rosenberg sees AeroFarms less as an agricultural producer than as a data-science company, delving into the intersection of plant biology and engineering with the goal of controlling every aspect of growing and maximizing efficiency.

“We take data on plants and understand what makes them grow,” he explains. “You can’t do it this way in the field. There are too many unknowns.”

AeroFarms’ vertical gardens grow under energy-efficient LED lights and use up to 70 percent less water, compared with more traditional soil-based or horizontal farming. Its largest facility, in Newark, New Jersey, produces 2 million pounds of leafy greens each year, which don’t have to travel far to reach urban markets. Despite these efficiencies, critics of vertical farming say using electricity rather than renewable sunlight doesn’t add up for high-volume production. Photo courtesy Aerofarms.


The biggest boon of vertical growing may be water conservation. Drive through California’s Salinas Valley, where the vast majority of America’s salad greens are grown, and you’ll see hundreds of sprinklers shooting great arcs of water across the fields. Some of that is used by the plants, but much is lost to evaporation and runoff.

In contrast, hydroponic and aeroponic systems give the plants only the water they need, and it is recirculated through the system. On average, indoor farms and greenhouses use at least 70 percent less water than traditionally farmed lettuce in California.

There are other benefits, too. The produce doesn’t have to travel — unlike the lettuces that journey as far as 2,800 miles if they are shipped from coast to coast. This all but eliminates the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with transport, though those are only a fraction of the total associated with producing food. (Read more about greenhouse gases tied to food waste in our feature on page 18.) And because they are fresher, the greens last longer in consumers’ refrigerators, which means less lettuce thrown away because it’s gone bad before it could be eaten.

No wonder vertical farms are catnip to technology investors looking for the next big disruptor. According to AgFunder, in 2016 funders poured $126 million into indoor agriculture- related startups (including things like lighting and software). But critics say that the environmental benefits of indoor farms don’t add up.

For one, to grow even a fraction of the fruits and vegetables needed to feed cities would take vast amounts of space. According to one analysis, it would require a 150-foot-by-150-foot, 37-story building to provide the vegetables for a city of just 15,000. This would cost $250 million to build and $7 million in electricity to run annually.

Indoor farms also fail to take advantage of a free and renewable source of energy: the sun. “If you’re not taking advantage of the sunlight, then the process will inherently involve excess energy consumption and carbon emissions,” says Stan Cox, a researcher at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas.

Substituting electricity for sunlight is costly. Using current technology, the equation just about works out for leafy greens, which are 90 to 95 percent water and don’t require as much light to grow. But do the math on denser fruits and vegetables or other crops — carrots, potatoes or wheat — and the amount of power required to grow them soars. According to Cox, it takes about 1,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity for each kilogram of edible matter (excluding the water stored inside). Or to put it another way: You need the same amount of electricity to grow one kilogram of tomatoes as you do to run your home refrigerator for an entire year.

“The claim of indoor farming is that we can spare the land by getting rid of industrial farming,” Cox says. “But of course, this vision uses more industrial inputs than anything done on the landscape.”

AeroFarms’ Rosenberg counters that lighting technology is getting ever more efficient. And though he concedes that indoor farming may look industrial, it addresses major challenges including the depletion of arable land, water pollution and conservation: “We don’t use soil. We don’t use pesticides. We use a fraction of the water that field farms do. We have a much softer footprint.”

In sunlit greenhouses on the outskirts of urban areas where land is more plentiful, BrightFarms raises greens and tomatoes using hydroponics — a system in which plants grow directly atop pools of fortified water. These and other crops like strawberries, cucumbers and peppers benefit from growing near where they’ll be consumed, a selling point for cities that have an urban-adjacent BrightFarms facility nearby. But hydroponic agriculture isn’t the right fit for all crops; apples, for instance, store well and travel more easily than delicate tomatoes, making traditional orchards a better option, for now. Photo by Chelsea Clough.


An even softer footprint comes from other types of commercial urban and peri-urban farms that use greenhouses. Take BrightFarms, which operates three commercial greenhouses and sells directly to grocery stores in seven states and the District of Columbia.

BrightFarms uses hydroponics, which means that trays of greens grow atop vast ponds. But rather than place its farms in cities, where land is generally more limited (and much more expensive), it locates its greenhouses just outside of urban areas. With more space, it is not necessary to stack plants to turn a profit. The use of hydroponics also means that the farms can be, well, horizontal — and take advantage of (free) sunlight.

Today, the crops that make commercial sense for hydroponic farming are greens and tomatoes, says BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot. Both crops travel long distances, unless you live on the West Coast. Both too are highly perishable and sell for a premium price. And, as anyone who has eaten a winter tomato knows, these crops benefit from being grown closer to home.

One day, Lightfoot hopes that BrightFarms will expand to other crops that meet the same criteria: strawberries, peppers and cucumbers. But there are limits to what he can produce. BrightFarms, he says, will never be able to compete on a crop like apples, which grow in many geographic areas, store well and travels easily. They will always be cheaper and more sustainably grown in the field.

Lexicon Icon


A method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Nutrients may be delivered a variety of ways, including fish waste, duck manure or a fertilizer containing key macronutrients.

In a hydroponic set-up, plants get the nutrients they need through irrigation water. The process eliminates soil and increases yield. For this process to be successful, ventilation and temperature modulation are key. Solar panels provide renewable energy to power irrigation pumps and ventilation systems, and rainwater is captured in roof tanks for use as irrigation in dry periods. Water is constantly recirculated in a hydroponic system, wasting none. Illustration by Ellaphant in the Room.


Commercial farms, of course, do not have to produce everything. Could community, rooftop and backyard gardens make up the difference? According to a 2016 report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the answer is no. While a significant proportion of fresh produce needs could theoretically be met in some places, it would only work in those locations if urban farms are widely implemented and focus on intensive forms of production such as rooftop gardens.

To feed Cleveland, for example, 80 percent of every vacant lot (of which there are many), 62 percent of industrial and commercial rooftops, and 9 percent of every occupied residential lot would have to be put into food production. Those are daunting numbers before you even consider practical constraints such as property values, infrastructure limitations and zoning regulations.

Urban agriculture’s limits do not make it a failure. Community, rooftop and backyard gardens make significant impacts in the lives of the people who tend them, and give poor communities like Camden access to fresh, free food.

Dominic Vitiello, a professor of city planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied urban farming in cities including Camden, concludes that in the United States, perhaps urban farming’s greatest potential is to effect “inside-out” community revitalization. Urban farming offers opportunities for social enterprise and supplemental income for low-income families. It also helps to build and sustain vital social networks that go unmeasured by traditional economic-development research.

In other words, urban farming may not feed a city like Camden. But its gardens can help rejuvenate the city and make it a worthy representative of the Garden State.

Heap on the Cranberry Sauce this Thanksgiving: The Bogs are Booming

Heap on the Cranberry Sauce this Thanksgiving: The Bogs are Booming

In recent years, the fruit’s popularity has drawn more and more growers into the market, and the supply chain has become glutted. Don’t be surprised if you see cranberries showing up in unusual places at unusual times of year.

Cranberries are as American as hot dogs and apple pie. More so, in fact, when you consider that apples are native to Central Asia and hot dogs originated in Germany, while cranberries come from the bogs of North America. Unlike pumpkin pie and turkey, Native Americans had been munching the acidic berries since long before the colonists arrived. But in recent years, the fruit’s popularity has drawn more and more growers into the market, and the supply chain has become glutted.
Photo by Licensed under Creative Commons.

American growers have long been cultivating cranberries, primarily in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon and Rhode Island, and in many parts of Canada. Until about 1930 the market was almost entirely geared toward the fresh fruit, but it’s now a year-round market driven primarily by preserved cranberries, like dried cranberries and canned cranberry sauce. Prices and demand grew steadily, even as improvements to cultivation practices increased supply.

But eventually the market became saturated. Prices peaked at $65 a barrel (or 15 cents a pound) in 1996, luring still more growers into the market before the inevitable crash in 2001, when cranberry prices dropped to $18 a barrel. In 2008, the USDA began purchasing surplus cranberries, primarily in the form of sauce, dried sweetened cranberries and cranberry juice concentrate (a byproduct of the other two), in order to support prices. The agency bought more cranberries in 2016, following a nearly $100 million purchase in 2015. The purchased cranberry products go to school lunches and other institutional kitchens, including food pantries. In 2014, nearly 68 million pounds were routed this way.

Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, represents the heart of cranberry country in a state that produces more than half the world’s crop. Kind has been outspoken about his opinion that the USDA purchases are vitally important to the industry at this sensitive time, but has also cautioned that the industry should not become too used to these purchases, because they will hopefully be phased out. “I keep warning the growers not to become too dependent on the USDA purchasing program,” Kind told Food + City in a phone interview.

While cutting the surplus supply is a tricky political proposition, growing the market, Kind says, is the best way out of the situation. And he sees increased international demand as the best chance of doing so. Currently, 25-30 percent of the crop is being sold overseas, and international demand is growing by 6 percent a year. Kind’s ambitions to grow the market are a big reason why he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) trade deal. Export tariffs will go to zero, he says, and Canada, the world’s second largest cranberry producer, will have a tougher time flooding the U.S. market with cranberries, as import tariffs like the ones Canada uses to keep out American cranberries will be banned. “This will give us greater ability to export to Canada.”

Photo by Keith Weller, USDA-ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Western Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Germany, are the biggest customers. Mexico is a major user too, Kind says. Cranberries are also making their way into Asia, where markets are small but growing.

Kind is also a member of the House Cranberry Caucus, which helped secure $1.6 million in 2015 to be used in growing the cranberry market, including the funding of research into the health benefits of cranberries.

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers’ Association, agrees that there is a lot of potential in the health benefits of cranberry products. But taking advantage of this is problematic in two particular ways, Lochner tells Food + City. For one, the cranberry’s reputation as a treatment for urinary tract infections is not the kind of sexy benefit you want to hang your marketing campaign upon in perpetuity. Lochner is very excited about recent research on proanthocyanidins, which are believed to be responsible for the cranberry’s legendary UTI-fighting ability. Proanthocyanidins act by preventing the bacteria from adhering to tissue, thus preventing an infection from getting established.

“Antibiotic resistance is spreading. Cranberries may hold a partial answer to helping address that issue,” Lochner says. “When the proanthocyanidins are in there the bacteria can’t adhere, so it gets flushed out of the system.” He says there are potential opportunities for cranberries in pharmacological applications, like cranberry powder as a dietary supplement.

But despite the high levels of vitamin C, antioxidants, proanthocyanidins and other beneficial compounds, another health-related challenge that cranberries face is the fact that they are so tart that, for most palates, they must be sweetened in order to be edible. Meanwhile, the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will likely place caps on added sugars for the upcoming rounds of guidelines, which will be in effect for five years.

A prohibition against added sugars, or limits in how many added sugars a person should consume in a day, would send shockwaves down the cranberry supply chain — in particular the USDA purchasing program, which is bound by the dietary guidelines and would be limited in how many cranberry products it could purchase and legally feed to the public.

Lochner bristles at this possibility, which he calls “one of the largest issues we face in the marketplace.”  The labeling of added sugars “has no basis in science,” he says. “Physiologically there is no difference between how sugars are digested.”

“Cranberry products are not empty calories,” he says.

But if the USDA does, in fact, put limits on added sugars, the cranberry industry will find other ways to move their cranberries. Juice blends, for example, where the other juices contribute their sweetness without being considered added sugars.
Whatever the final solution, cranberry farmers and their representatives will be working hard to ensure that it won’t come in the form of production cuts.

“You can’t just turn off the spigot, as it’s a perennial crop,” Lochner says. “Canada-grown fruit makes US efforts to limit production irrelevant, so supply management is off the table. Growing demand is what we’re trying to do.”

So, don’t be surprised to see cranberries showing up in unexpected places, in unusual times of the year. Cranberry popsicles, anyone?

The City that Feeds Mexico

The City that Feeds Mexico

The traffic jam to enter the world’s largest food market begins around 3 a.m. Trucks of all sizes stream in, heavy with oranges from Veracruz or chiles from Chihuahua, manned by drowsy drivers who left their hometowns the day before to make the trip.

Imported cargo arrives via shorter daily runs from the neighboring international airport, and still other lorries cross several countries via the Pan-American Highway to sell their goods at Mexico City’s Central de Abasto.

At 327 hectares, this is the world’s largest market. Each day, more than 2,000 trailers, 1,500 semitrucks and 57,000 other vehicles provide 30,000 tons of produce to 9,500 stands. The market closes from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily to remove the 1,300 tons of waste produced daily. The distribution network connects to more than 1,500 points of sale around Mexico, including public neighborhood markets, street tianguis (roving markets), 380 establishments associated with 15 chain stores, and other kinds of commercial centers.

Open 365 days a year, this mega-market welcomes over 350,000 visitors daily. It formally employs 70,000 people and informally many more, including over 12,000 cartilleros — delivery men with dollies — each day. The market handles more than 30,000 tons of food daily, representing approximately 80 percent of all the food consumed in the metropolitan area and about 30 percent of the food consumed in the country.

Feeding a city of 21 million inhabitants is no easy task, which is why this market has its own zip code, an independent governing body and even its own 700-man police force, which comes in handy considering more than $9 billion changes hands annually, mostly in cash. This makes Central de Abasto one of the largest economic centers of operations in the country, second only to the Mexican Stock Exchange.

Designed by architect Abraham Zabludovsky, Central opened its doors in 1982 in Ixtapalapa, southeast of the city center. The project grew from necessity: The former wholesale market, La Merced, had overwhelmed the centro histórico with traffic and lacked the necessary infrastructure to deal with the growing demands of the city. Of the market’s eight major sectors, Central’s fruit and vegetable area is the largest. Forty interwoven aisles stretch 140 acres, with 64 interior loading docks. All in all, that’s the length of 105 football fields, each piled high with produce. Most aisles sell mayoreo, wholesale quantities of 5 kilos or more, but several aisles provide menudeo, smaller quantities for the general public.

Hangar-style sections outside boast even cheaper prices. The subasta (auction) area, closed to the general public, hosts the first step in the chain of sale as middlemen negotiate prices for full trucks of produce directly with providers. Giant arched metal roofs top the open-air flower and vegetable area, where growers sell a variety of fresh goods to other vendors or directly to the public in a morning frenzy. Both areas are picked clean of merchandise by 8 a.m.

Enormous plastic bags of processed cereals and snacks can be found in the grocery and supplies section.
A 50 kilogram (110 pound) sack of corn costs costs between 14 and 24 cents in the outdoor flowers and vegetables pavilion. Skilful workers wielding sharp knives quickly clean the ears, allowing customers the option of buying kernels by the kilo.
In corridors I-J, vendors sell retail to the public in small quantities. This service was not available 10 years ago, meaning a customer who wanted to make guacamole would have to walk several football fields to gather all the ingredients.
Towers of huacales, inexpensive wooden crates used to carry fruits and vegetables, are repaired and resold in the Envases Vacíos (Empty Crates) area.
Piles of fresh octopus from the Yucatecan coast await a buyer in the fish and seafood area.
Oceánides sells salmon from Chile, fresh shrimp and mackerel from the Gulf of Mexico, octopus from the Caribbean, shark from Chiapas and farm-raised shrimp from several Mexican states.
The fruit and vegetable section is arranged as a woven tapestry, with five main hallways and eight commercial corridors connected by a series of raised pedestrian bridges that allow lorries to pass underneath. Cars park on rooftop decks, and the metal-roofed bodegas feature loading docks to the back and storefronts along the interior hallways to serve clients.
Poblano peppers from the Mexican state of Zacatecas await unloading. They will be packed into wooden crates and sold from the storefront, but a sign posted in the loading dock gives shoppers the option of buying directly from the truck. Here, one pound of poblanos costs about 31 cents.
Ignacio Romero and his two brothers have been selling Mexican oranges for more than 20 years from this stand, located at M113. Orange prices vary wildly throughout the year, swinging from 26 cents a pound in the summer to as low as 7 cents a pound in the winter, the high season for citrus.
Long morning shadows stretch from the lorries stacked high with onions, carrots, tomatillo and nopales (cactus paddles) as they back into the loading docks of the fruit and vegetable section.

The flow of goods throughout the market and to the points of distribution beyond its walls relies on the 12,000 cartilleros who rush through the corridors daily. Anyone with an ID and $1.20 can rent a dolly, but efficient and reliable cartilleros build a client base and make more money than beginners. It’s tough work, hauling up to half a ton of food in a single trip, navigating the jam-packed aisles during the busiest hours of 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. The elevated bridges connecting the corridor of bodegas to the hallways that lead to the outside parking lots provide a special challenge. Workers run quickly to gain momentum for the steep summit. They pause on top for a rest, then begin an equally difficult descent, with no brakes and a heavy load. A coded language of whistles fills the air and helps the cartilleros communicate with each other. “I’m on your left!” sounds different than “Move over, I’m coming through!”

Carlos Hernandez Reyna runs one of the larger companies that rents dollies to the 11,000 cartilleros at Mexico City’s Central de Abasto. His company rents out their entire fleet of 1,600 diablitos (little devils, the Spanish word for dolly) every single day, at $1.20 a piece. In an attempt to stop the annual loss of about 250 carts, his company is piloting a program in 2016 to install GPS tracking devices that will notify central command when a diablito crosses the market boundaries.
Eduardo Lopez Garcia works as a cartillero for two months at a time, then spends five months with his family in Chiapas. His busiest hours in the market are between 4 and 6 a.m.
Jesús Adonai, 18, has worked as a cartillero in the market since he was 12. He makes around $32 dollars a day during the week and $70 a day on the weekends. Mexico’s minimum wage is less than $4 a day. He stays at the market later than most, until about 9 p.m., as the commute home can take up to three hours if he leaves during the evening rush.
Ulysses Cruz Juárez won’t share his age or his brother’s name. He has worked as a cartillero for the past five years.