Startup Spotlight: Vinder

Startup Spotlight: Vinder

Founded in Port Townsend, Washington, by Sam Lillie, Vinder connects home veggie gardeners with folks who want to buy that fresh produce. The app brings together community members who are interested in ultra-local food and reducing food waste. It also boosts the local economy by opening up a revenue stream for green thumbs who connect with their neighbors to share their garden’s bounty. We recently reached out to the 2018 Food+City Challenge Prize contestant to find out how things are going at Vinder.

What’s your founding date?

January 21, 2018.

How big is your team?

Four full time.

What problem are you solving?

Food waste, cost and food insecurity.

What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?

As much as I heard and read about it, the investor “run-around” has been my biggest surprise. Most professional investors I’ve had the privilege to speak with don’t give a solid “no.” They give advice and information, which is great because it helps hone the pitch and business plan/strategy. But it may not be the right type of advice that works for your company or be useful when approaching other investors. It ends up being a massive time/energy zap.

What part of the food system are you in?

Vinder is situated in the distribution of hyper-local produce — neighbor to neighbor. Yet, we do not own any delivery vehicles or own any inventory.

What was the big idea that got you started?

My community, Port Townsend, Washington, had a big problem accessing local organic produce for a reasonable price. Vinder was created not to be some massive, disruptive company, but to solve a problem in my community.

Whom are you competing with?

For convenience, we compete with HEB or Whole Foods. For freshness and locality, we compete with farmers’ markets. However, we see ourselves as a tool to help those small vendors reach more customers and increase sales direct-to-consumer.

The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…

a company called Vinder that allows you to buy, sell or trade homegrown produce and neighbor-made goods directly from your neighbors. It’s free to sign up and free to sell or trade.

The scariest thing about today’s food system is…

we have normalized an absence of connection to our food system. We have no idea what is actually going into the soil in which our food is being grown (or what chemicals are being sprayed on them), who is growing it or where exactly it is being grown.

What’s your latest big news?

We are now a user-owned and -operated company. After successfully closing an Equity Crowdfunding round of more than $85,000 via WeFunder and receiving matching angel investments, Vinder issued preferred shares to users who are taking a stand against our current food system and are opting to create the neighbor-made food system of the future. Vinder is also now available for iOS and Android.

Best advice you’ve received?

In the words of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham, “Focus on getting 100 people to love you rather than 1,000 people to kind of like you.”

What advice do you give to potential startup founders?

You don’t need a lot of money to start a company. First, come up with the lowest-budget minimum viable product and validate that the market needs your solution. Then build out manually, followed by tech. Let tech be a solution to make a process more efficient rather than the primary focus.

Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of Water

As the lobster capital of the U.S. looks to diversify its commercial fishing industry, new options for harvesting seafood are emerging — in ocean-based farms, in cold rivers and even on land. Maine is diving into aquaculture.

Independent fishermen, the backbone of the Maine commercial seafood industry, play a vital role in the state’s culture and economy. Roughly 5,000 lobster fishermen produce 80 percent of the value of Maine’s commercial seafood catch – an estimated contribution of more than $1 billion to the state economy. But relying too much on any one species could put the state in a precarious position. The volume and value of Maine lobster fell more than 15 percent from 2016 to 2017, from $533 million in 2016 to $434 million in 2017. Tariffs imposed in July 2018 by China on select American products, including lobster, represent a new factor that could affect Maine lobstermen this year, despite a very productive season so far.

Climate change is another problem. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has identified the waters off of coastal Maine as “one of the fastest-warming ocean ecosystems on the planet.” The volatility of the water temperature is just one reason many small fishermen began to focus primarily on lobster, where prior generations made a living on a varied catch. In this new reality, re-diversifying production and having more direct control over cultivation will help sustain Maine’s commercial seafood industry. Two aquaculture endeavors now in development represent decidedly different alternatives for America’s lobster capital.

The Rise of Aquaculture Worldwide

Aquaculture in Maine has been practiced since at least the 1800s. While laws regarding fish and shellfish culture date back to 1905, the Maine Legislature only began to regulate aquaculture as an industry in 1973. In the last few decades, Maine-based institutions have dived into aquaculture research, but many questions remain about how to make production more cost-efficient. Farmers bringing product to market also play an important role in determining aquaculture’s viability: by finding ways to integrate into existing supply chains or to create new ones and by understanding how consumers relate to new products, including their willingness to pay to them.

Worldwide, consumers seem very willing to pay for farmed fish. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global per-capita fish consumption is on the rise. As of 2016, aquaculture accounted for 47 percent of all fish consumed as food. Further, the first-sale value of all aquaculture production was estimated at $243.5 billion — almost double the value of global fishery production. Investors have noticed. Venture capital and private-equity capital from the same entrepreneurial ecosystems that have long funded tech startups are turning to food systems ventures.

“Fish is the new beef,” says Mike Velings, a Dutch venture capitalist and founder of Aqua-Spark, the first aquaculture investment fund. His 2015 TED talk, “The Case for Fish Farming,” has been viewed more than a million times. In light of this global surge in aquaculture, Maine’s fishing industry is exploring ways to move beyond lobsters.

What is Aquaculture?

The term aquaculture refers to the farming of aquatic organisms in water and can include finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, sea cucumber, seaweed, kelp, algae — anything that grows in water. It’s related to hydroponics, which generally refers to growing plants in nutrient-rich water, without soil, as well as aquaponics, the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment. Aquaculture differs from conventional fishing or even harvesting of shellfish and seaweed in that it explicitly includes propagation (almost always in a land-based, lab-like setting, or “hatchery”) as well as tending to the crop, or stock, through the whole growth cycle. Vertical ocean farming is essentially an aquaponic practice in an ocean environment, in which seaweed and shellfish farms are vertically arranged in the water column, mimicking the arrangement of natural systems and promoting interactivity with other ocean species around them.

All Eyes on Scallops

Tenants Harbor in St. George is a picturesque spot in Maine’s mid-coast region, nestled between two hillsides that protect it from the winds off the bay. I’ve come here to meet Ryan McPherson, Merritt Carey and Peter Miller, members of the newly formed Maine Aquaculture Co-op. The topic: sea-scallop farming in Penobscot Bay. It’s a new idea for a region more associated with lobsters, and the hope is to reintroduce a measure of diversification for independent fishermen so they can continue to make a living from the sea.

“It’s all about local knowledge,” Miller, a fourth-generation fisherman, says. “I want every young fisherman to have the chance that I had.”

Maine isn’t new to scallop production, but its cold ocean temperatures mean they grow slowly. “To harvest wild scallops in Maine, they have to be four inches, which takes about four years,” McPherson explains. “The product we’re landing doesn’t have those restrictions, because we’re growing them.”

A former fisherman with a degree in entrepreneurship, McPherson purchased Glidden Point Oysters in Edgecomb, Maine, with leases in the deep water of the Damariscotta River, in 2017. He has quickly made inroads in the state, expanding relationships with chefs and maintaining Glidden Point Oysters as a premium product, a philosophy he brought to his involvement with the Maine Aquaculture Co-op. In addition to making chefs aware of the co-op, he fostered a tie to Island Creek Oysters, which provides a robust point-of-sale and distribution network for products that share Island Creek Oysters’ emphasis on celebrating American merroir. The co-op’s first live, whole scallops — not just the abductor muscle that most people traditionally 
think of as a scallop — started selling on the platform in early 2018.

“Before we pull them out of the water, they are already sold,” McPherson says. Literally pulling them out of the water is interesting, too. As the net emerges from the water, the petite scallops respond to the change in their environment and clap their shells shut in unison.

a juvenile scallop fresh from the bay

A 2016 market analysis for Maine-farmed shellfish confirmed that the portion of shellfish produced by aquaculture in Maine remains quite small — less than 1 percent of the landed value of oysters, mussels and scallops in the United States. Despite the small quantity, Maine scallops garner the highest price per pound of any state. Yet Maine produces only 2 percent of the country’s volume. To meet consumer demand, the United States imports 40 million pounds of scallop meat, with a value ($350 million) close to the value of scallops it produces domestically ($380 million). Projections about future consumer demand may be conservative because they don’t consider the impact of expanding direct-to-consumer buying options and prepared meal kits. The report also notes that Maine has the cold, clean waters to support shellfish aquaculture expansion, with projected acreage needed by 2030 estimated to be less than .3 percent of state waters.

Merritt Carey pulls a lantern net out of the water to reveal juvenile scallops in an early stage of growth. Photo by Laurie Zapalac.

Lexicon IconMerroir

like the French terroir, which refers to the flavor notes a wine gets from the grapes’ soil and growing region, merroir describes the way seafoods reflect the taste of the waters in which they’re grown.

Ryan McPherson explains the staging float and its relationship to the leases held by the Maine Aquaculture Co-op farther out in Penobscot Bay. Photo by Laurie Zapalac.

Juvenile scallops grow in vertical “lantern nets” (left), a Japanese aquaculture technique adopted by some Maine scallop farmers. Once they’re larger, the scallops are drilled and hung on long lines in water 25 feet deep, where they grow to full size. Click image to enlarge. Image courtesy the Water Brothers.

For delicious scallop pics and shots of the sea farmers at work, follow @MaineAquacultureCoop on Instagram.

The Salmon Story

Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon population hovers on the brink of extension due to loss of fresh water spawning habitat, overfishing, pollution and other forces. Heavily depleted by the late 1960s and declared an endangered species in 2000, wild Atlantic salmon is no longer fished commercially in Maine waters. In 2016, habitat restoration projects began, and small upticks in population are now being recorded.

Responding to the vast U.S. market hungry for salmon, Norwegian investors are focusing on Maine for land-based production. The U.S. exports the majority of the seafood it harvests, while importing species such as salmon — an inefficient crossover that generates heavy carbon dioxide emissions. But salmon farmed in Maine can efficiently reach more than 50 million people in adjacent states, a “grow-local” solution.

“The exciting thing is, you can place production close to the consumer,” says Erik Heim, CEO of Nordic AquaFarms. “So instead of airfreighting in tons of salmon from New Zealand, Chile, Norway, Scotland, you can produce it locally.”

Salmon swim around in a tank at an indoor, land-based finfish farm.

Moving Indoors

Nordic AquaFarms aims to produce 30,000 metric tons (approximately 66 million pounds) of salmon annually in a facility in Belfast, Maine, estimated to cost $500 million when fully complete. Due in part to concerns associated with ocean-based finfish farming, including fish feed sourcing, disease, use of antibiotics, fish escape, pollution and others, the location of aquaculture is changing dramatically. Earlier aquaculture practices for finfish entailed producing eggs and growing juvenile fish in land-based hatcheries, then releasing them into sea-pens — or in the case of stock regulation, into the wild. Today’s finfish aquaculture is increasingly keeping the fish indoors for life.

Heim explains that the facility will comprise three main production areas: hatchery, grow out and processing. The facility’s engine is a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). “Land-based farming is basically where everything is happening indoors,” Heim says. “You’re taking water in and releasing water out, so you can clean it and treat it,” a practice that allows for recirculation and a reduction in overall water usage and nutrient discharge. “That’s a key part of the concept.”

Overhead rendering of Nordic Aquafarms’s site in Belfast, Maine. The first phase of construction of the indoor-salmon-farming facility is projected to be complete in 2020 or 2021. Image courtesy Nordic Farms.

Deploying aquaculture on a large scale indoors means confronting questions about selective breeding, genetic engineering, use of fertilizers and antibiotics, and waste processing — issues familiar to other types of industrial-scale land-based farming. Another question is how the introduction of foreign-investor-driven projects will impact the local communities and economies that host them. While operations of this size should mean more jobs, fishermen may have to adjust to harvesting their catch on land.

While building on decades of knowledge, Nordic AquaFarms operations are relatively new. Founded in 2014, its business units include Sashimi Royal in Hanstholm, Denmark, the largest yellowtail kingfish facility in the world, which began producing commercially in early 2018; and Fredrikstad Seafood in Fredrikstad, Norway, which will be the biggest salmon facility in Europe when it comes online in 2018. The Fredrikstad operation is “the blueprint for what we’re doing here. What we’re looking to do is not just build a land-based facility. We want to change this industry, and we’ve invested a lot into innovation,” Heim says. “We’re taking the science to an entirely new level.”

This raises an important question: How can radically new practices — so new they aim to be innovative on a global scale — be embraced by communities devoted to traditional methods?

Heim takes a stab at the answer. “If you look at the Maine seafood industry, it is very fragmented, many small producers, mostly concerned about their own business. Enormous resources go into building seafood brands and salmon brands in Norway. I think there is an opportunity for the industry (in Maine) to get together and do more.”

Yet, Maine is a vastly different place politically, socially and economically than Norway. Rather than solely focusing on exporting Nordic best practices, what will the Norwegians seek to learn from Mainers, ensuring that knowledge sharing is a two-way process? And how will they address concerns raised by their host community: What does releasing waste and nutrients a mile off shore really mean? How will it affect the bay? How will it affect me as a swimmer? How many people do you intend to employ and how much will you pay them?

On the Dinner Table

Land-based salmon farming and ocean-based scallop farming operate under wildly different assumptions about how people acclimate to new ideas, from winning over potential consumers to gaining support from host communities and existing players in the commercial seafood industry. Each presents a distinct set of questions about the impact on the state’s environmental resources. Each relies on and will amplify different industry knowledge. Can Maine go forward in a way that its land- and sea-based farming industries not only limit negative impacts for each other, but also find opportunities for knowledge sharing and mutual benefit?

Returning home to Boston, I find a flyer in the mail from the meal kit delivery company HomeChef, showing whole carrots, enticing bok choy and two precisely cut salmon filets. It reads, “Designed with you in mind, using fresh, thoughtfully sourced ingredients.” As food production and consumption continue to evolve, it still remains up to us to decide what exactly “thoughtfully sourced” means.

Learn more about vertical ocean farming in this TED article.

Route Optimization That Allows for Constant Change

Route Optimization That Allows for Constant Change

When Layla Shaikley began brainstorming with three classmates, it was to fulfill an assignment in a class on entrepreneurship at MIT. The professor had challenged them to devise a technology that could change a billion lives. Focused on developing countries, the foursome looked at how to use data from volatile zones to draw conclusions about crime and personal safety. They decided to target cell phone data and searched for partners outside the U.S.

But when they began asking around, they learned that companies of all sizes had a more pressing problem: navigating day-to-day deliveries. While routing solutions such as Roadnet® — one of the largest — do exist, these technologies planned routes the night before. They couldn’t make real-time adjustments if a snowstorm hit, traffic got snarled, loading docks filled up or the customer didn’t turn up to receive delivery.

Along with potential customers voicing their needs, MIT advisors noted the same challenge existed in the U.S. Using harvested data as a backbone, the team tackled the complex problem of route optimization for the shipping and logistics industry. Here was the answer to their assignment: a technology to offer nimble routing using big data, machine learning and cell phones.

The first thing they discovered was that most traditional delivery routing systems weren’t accounting for the volume of available open-source data that could reveal historical patterns such as traffic and weather. The team created several algorithms that take in passive data, including historical service times or traffic patterns as well as direct feedback from drivers using their prototype — a straightforward mobile app for drivers to follow, paired with a web-based tool for managers to review.

The students searched for companies willing to share data so they could test it. That part was easy.

“We would cold-call companies on LinkedIn and say, ‘MIT and big data,’” says Shaikley with a laugh. Apparently, that combination was enough to pique interest. To better understand drivers’ challenges, Shaikley rode along with them. “I’d hop in these giant trucks and watch them use our app,” she says. “It was like standing in front of a crowd naked. Drivers are sharp and they know what they’re doing.” And they had immediate feedback: Drivers were critical of the abundance of in-app messaging. How could they deal with a ton of pop-ups while on the road?

After two years of fine-tuning their proof of concept, the team made it official, incorporating the business and naming it Wise Systems. After graduation in 2014, they joined an MIT startup accelerator. When they wrapped that, they searched for paying clients.

Through an advisor at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, they were introduced to Anheuser-Busch. They walked the beer giant through their process, explaining that by using data such as traffic, cancellations, late customers and weather, the Wise algorithms adjust drivers’ schedules on the fly. This means “they can make the most efficient decisions possible” about navigation and order of delivery, according to Chazz Sims, Wise Systems CEO and co-founder.

In 2016, Anheuser-Busch agreed to run a pilot using Wise Systems in two locations: Seattle and San Diego. The company still used Roadnet, its existing technology, for its route pre-planning, but it used Wise for day-of routing. Several months later, when Anheuser-Busch reviewed the metrics — driver satisfaction, shorter routes, quicker work time — they were impressed enough to roll the Wise launch out to every single U.S. wholesaler, plus two locations in Canada.

Wise’s success with the beer giant demonstrates the novelty of their solution — real-time route optimization.

“People think this is solved, but it’s not,” says Sims. Case in point: UPS spent billions to create its in-house system, called Orion. Initiated more than a decade ago, the system didn’t launch until 2016, with the help of 500 staffers working on the technology. In contrast, Wise has a staff of 15. While UPS has incredible numbers — handling 15.8 million packages on an average day — imagine how much technology has changed since Orion was initiated. A UPS spokesperson noted that real-time optimization, including real-time navigation and updates after each stop, won’t be fully deployed until 2019.

Wise’s app makes extensive use of third- party tools — including mapping, weather, traffic and navigation — and focuses solely on the algorithms that take in the data and create flexible day-of schedules.

“We pull real-time traffic, we look at history, we make projections of what the rest of the day will be like,” says Sims. Taking into account that specific route’s history, the software determines that if a driver continues with his or her current route, a delay is likely. At this point, the Wise app alerts the driver to a route change, which the driver can accept or reject based on his or her experience with the trip.

Shaikley calls drivers’ collective experience “tribal knowledge.” A driver who hits the same stop week after week knows some customers have good and bad times for deliveries. Maybe the Coke delivery guy will be there at the same time, maybe parking will be terrible, perhaps the customer is out for his daily coffee.

“They [drivers] can add their own knowledge and insight into the app, and we can take in the feedback,” says Sims, noting that future algorithms for a specific route would include those updates. Shaikley emphasizes their goal of being a driver-first solution.

With several new contracts on the horizon, Wise Systems is making progress expanding the business and plans to capture new market segments in 2018. They will have helped the delivery of 10 million packages by the end of this year by homing in on a single part of the puzzle: flexible routing. For a project that started as a grad school lark, Shaikley says they’re chipping away at the original goal of changing a billion lives by focusing on drivers. “Understanding what is in their heads is the most valuable.”

Wise Systems co-founder Layla Shaikley isn’t your run-of-the-mill MIT architecture grad. Yes, she co-created a tech startup that’s improving the way logistics companies optimize deliveries. But she also interned at NASA, co-founded TEDxBaghdad and co-produced a video featuring #mipsterz, aka Muslim hipsters. Creativity and impact are guiding themes for Layla and key pieces of a lesson her own Muslim parents instilled early on. “They had one rule for me growing up: Do whatever you want, just be the best at it.”

Keep up with the latest in logistics entrepreneurship and follow Layla Shaikley on Twitter @laylool.

Will Trucks Ever Vanish? The Future of Transportation

Will Trucks Ever Vanish? The Future of Transportation

While trains, trucks and ships continue the global movement of our food in what is now a decades-old system, the evolution of that last mile to our front door is vaulting forward. Here are a few innovations that might become old hat within the next few years.

Foodie Robots

Don’t be surprised when you begin to notice your sidewalk cluttered with electronics instead of people. DoorDash, an on-demand food delivery service based in San Francisco, is testing out robots as an addition to its food-delivery workforce. [Read more about DoorDash in our story, “Smarter TV Dinners.”] With pilot programs that began in Redwood City in 2017, the self-driving robots deliver goods to customers within a two-mile radius. The futuristic helpers come from Starship Technologies and look like small refrigerators on wheels. The self-guided machines use nine cameras and sound waves to create an imaginary bubble around them, which allows them to go around objects or make a full stop. It’s not all rose-colored glasses, though, as cities like San Francisco attempt to enact restrictions limiting these pesky bots.

Edible Drones

The future of delivery, according to everyone, is drones. But that reality — drones dropping boxes out of the air — is a long way off, despite stunts pulled off by Google and Amazon. However, two designs are delivering food in meaningful ways. Windhorse Aerospace has developed a one-use drone, nicknamed Pouncer, to bring food and other supplies to disaster zones. The device, made of lightweight plywood that can be used for firewood post-delivery, incorporates meals wrapped in thin plastic that could be reused in disaster shelters once the meals are finished. According to founder Nigel Gifford (above), the drone will feed about 100 people for one day. Inedible components, such as the electronics, are being kept to a minimum. One day, Gifford’s crafty engineers could wrap those components in bouillon cubes. Sounds delicious, right?

Another forward-thinking drone test is happening in our national parks. The pilot program is aimed at rescuing prairie dogs. The cute rodents have been hit by a disease that, if left untreated, could spell disaster for their primary predator, the black-footed ferret, an animal on the brink of extinction. This is where the drones come in: They’re dropping peanut-butter pellets — the size of blueberries — laced with vaccine for the sick prairie dogs on the ground. The beauty of the drones in both examples is the distance they can cover and their ability to serve hard-to-reach spots.

Autonomous Pizza

For six weeks in late 2017, Ford partnered with Domino’s to deliver pizzas to randomly selected customers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, via its Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle. Customers who agreed to be a part of the test could track their pizza on the Domino’s delivery app, receiving text messages as the car approached. When it arrived, customers received a text with a unique code to unlock the heating compartment inside the vehicle and retrieve their pizza. Ford’s test cars use lidar, a method for measuring distance to a target using pulsed laser light detected by both radar and camera sensors. While the test did include an engineer behind the wheel, the windows were blacked out so there was no interaction. Despite these depersonalization measures, the team found people wanted to interact with the car, even saying hello to it and waving goodbye. As the second-most-profitable pizza company in the world, behind Pizza Hut, Domino’s is paying close attention to what role self-driving vehicles may play in the future. While Ford won’t begin building its self-driving vehicles until 2021, you can already order a pie from Domino’s simply by tweeting the pizza emoji to your local franchise. [Read more about the self-driving Domino’s vehicles in MIT’s Technology Review.]

Underground Delivery

In the distant future we may see the return of pneumatic tubes making their way back into the world as we know it. Several years ago, Amazon filed for a patent for a dedicated system of underground tunnels that could bring packages closer to home — a system that “may avoid congestion experienced by traditional transportation networks.” Late in 2016, the patent was awarded. Other companies are tinkering with similar ideas: Elon Musk is developing technology to bore tunnels below street level in Los Angeles, and Mole Solutions Ltd, an English company, has tested similar systems with government funding. But there’s another more obvious use for our underground spaces, and that’s for our salad bowl. So far, we’ve got greens growing inside giant warehouses, in shipping containers and on rooftops, and it won’t be long before we see hydroponic cells — microfarms, if you will — cropping up underground. When the lettuce is ready for harvest, it can be delivered quickly to surrounding areas, keeping the carbon footprint as tiny as a microgreen.

Transcending Seasons: Following the Global Cold Chain

Transcending Seasons: Following the Global Cold Chain

Prior to the late 19th century, families around the country ate only what they could grow or what nearby farmers had to offer. For people who lived where winters were frigid, that meant a limited winter diet consisting of food preserved in a root cellar. But that all changed when refrigerated rail cars enabled cross-country shipping of meats and produce from faraway farms. Access to a wider variety of foods year round changed the American diet permanently.

In 1927, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published the first of their two classic studies of modernization in a midwestern community they called “Middletown.” Among the topics considered by the citizens of what was actually Muncie, Indiana, were recent changes to their diet. “In 1890 we had meat three times a day,” explained a Muncie grocery store owner. “Breakfast, pork chops or steak with fried potatoes, buckwheat cakes, and hot bread; lunch, a hot roast and potatoes; supper, same roast cold.” This would have been impossible even a decade earlier because the mass production of beef had only just become technologically viable.

What made the mass production of beef possible? Refrigerated rail cars, thanks to Gustavus Swift’s efforts in the 1880s. By 1890, steers and pigs slaughtered in Chicago stockyards arrived in cities and towns across the country, chilled by ice for the entire route.

“Steaks, roasts, macaroni, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, coleslaw, fried apples and stewed tomatoes.” This is how a Muncie housewife described her family’s “winter diet” to the Lynds before refrigeration arrived there during the late 1920s. No strawberries. No eggs. The winter diet was nothing but bland winter fare. Before fruits and vegetables were protected by similarly refrigerated rail cars, producers faced substantial spoilage and could never ship in winter because delays caused by freezing weather could doom whole shipments. (While some spoilage happened during warm months, too, ventilated rail cars allowed cooling breezes, mitigating damage.)

Consumers in Muncie faced what was known as “spring sickness” because they lacked access to the vitamins they needed for months on end every year. By contrast, with the advent of refrigeration, perishable produce could arrive from California all year or be kept in cold storage for winter use when those fruits or vegetables had been grown nearby.

The year-round availability of meats and green vegetables that we now take for granted requires an infrastructure. The turn of the 20th century brought the inception of this infrastructure, which changed the American diet forever.

“Everything from eggs to apples (apart from canned, pickled or dried versions) would be seasonally unavailable without cold storage.”

As refrigerated transportation became the norm, a new type of food chain was born — the cold chain. While a food chain requires no special technologies to store and transport foods of all kinds, cold chains require some form of refrigeration every step of the way because spoilage is ongoing. If one link in the chain fails, the product becomes inedible. What was true about cold chains during the early 20th century remains true today.

Lexicon Icon COLD CHAIN

A “cold chain” is a modern refrigerating engineering term that refers to the path of perishable foods from the point of production to the point of consumption. Unlike regular food chains, cold chains require refrigeration along the entire path to prevent spoilage.


Technology has always had a tremendous effect on what people eat. Some technologies have made it possible to overcome distance by making cold chains longer, while others have made it economical to get better-tasting perishables by making cold chains shorter. As cold chains (and the transportation systems associated with them) have improved, the perishable food we eat has become fresher as delivery has become faster. Cold chains even let consumers defy seasons, allowing us access to fruits and vegetables that the people of Muncie seldom saw at any time of year.

With so many cold chains for so many different foods now available, it seems much more accurate to describe our perishable-food provisioning system as an intricate cold web. The refrigerated strands of that web crisscross not just America but the whole world. Their size, their speed and, most importantly, their efficiency have an enormous impact on what we eat because they help determine how much every kind of perishable food costs, or whether that food is available at all.


Meat was just about the most expensive food you could buy during the late 19th century. As such, it was the perfect guinea pig for testing cold chain technology — success would bring the greatest financial benefit to the pioneers. Meat producers tapped into a huge market of consumers who wanted to add more meat to their diets as both a status symbol and because of the superior nourishment meat provided, compared to their earlier diets. When technology brought down the price of meat, consumers responded quickly.

After the cold chain for meat came similar protections for fruits and vegetables, starting in the 1890s. Fast refrigerator cars full of produce grown in California could get melons or lettuce to the East Coast for consumption in about a week. Iceberg lettuce was bred specifically during this period because it could hold up to refrigeration better than the alternatives. Refrigerated shipping and cold storage made these products common all year round and ended “spring sickness” forever.

In his 2006 book “The Walmart Effect,” journalist Charles Fishman describes how lengthening the cold chain for salmon — all the way to South America — brought down the price so much that Americans can now eat that once-uncommon fish on a regular basis. While Atlantic Salmon are not native to Chile, they are now being farmed there and flown to the United States in huge quantities. As a result, writes Fishman, “[S]almon farming has transformed the economy of southern Chile, ushering in an industrial revolution that has turned thousands of Chileans from subsistence farmers and fishermen into hourly paid salmon processing-plant workers.”

Fishman stresses the importance of deboning machinery to making shipping cheap salmon economical — but that’s just because the low costs of refrigerating fish and transporting the product by air are so entrenched that they can be easily taken for granted. Thanks to advances in the cold chain that have made it possible to market fish of all kinds worldwide, Chilean salmon arrives in the continental United States faster than salmon from Alaska. Walmart has paid for preserving and marketing much of that Chilean salmon once it arrives.

Long cold chains for fish do not have to involve airplanes. Refrigerated packing crates and gigantic barges have made shipping costs so cheap that fish caught off Norway can be efficiently shipped to China for processing (taking advantage of low labor costs) and then shipped again across the Pacific to America for consumption. Cold chain shipping — by air or sea — has played a particularly important role in fish farming of all kinds, making it possible to market large amounts of fish produced in what would otherwise be isolated locations. In fact, whether there will still be enough fish in the seas to satisfy this new demand has become an open question.


Orange juice is a good example of how cold chains can be physically shortened to preserve a fresher taste. “Fresh-frozen” orange juice from concentrate dates from 1952. Not-from-concentrate orange juice dates from the 1990s. Ironically, this apparently “fresh” product can be stored for up to a year before the necessary processing occurs. Once taken out of storage and pumped with flavor enhancements, fresh juice has a shorter shelf life than juice concentrate — one to two weeks. Since it bears a much closer resemblance to fresh-squeezed it can fetch a higher price than the frozen juice concentrate sold in cans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the local food movement has revived somewhat the idea of shorter cold chains. But it may be a moot argument. Consider the pros and cons:

One reason people were supposed to buy more local food is that the energy expended on refrigeration contributes significantly to the warming of the planet. Yet, as Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimzo have explained, one study found that “transporting a large volume of broccoli in a refrigerated container that had been moved around on a boat, a railroad car, and a truck to a distribution point required a lot less energy than a few thousand consumers bringing the same volume of broccoli back to their homes.”

Food miles have lately fallen out of favor as a unit of analysis because they oversimplify the environmental costs of eating perishable foods. Besides the efficiency of transport, another problem with food miles is that the energy expended to keep perishable food fresh also keeps that food from ending up in a landfill where it would give off the deadly greenhouse gas methane as it rots — a scenario in which the costs of refrigeration are less than the costs of spoilage. Similarly, the refrigeration costs associated with eating local beef may be lower, but what about the greenhouse gasses expended to raise the cow in the first place?


Nonetheless, some refrigerated indulgences should give any environmentally minded person pause. For example, the highly endangered bluefin tuna is an Atlantic and Mediterranean fish, yet it is regularly shipped as fast as possible to the Tsukiji fish market in Japan, where one specimen alone recently fetched $632,000. In this case, refrigeration has enabled the creation of a market that provides the perverse incentive to hunt a species to near extinction. Similarly, the Costa Di Mare restaurant inside the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas daily flies in fish caught and frozen in Italy’s coastal waters.

One way to move faster is to travel long distances at higher speeds; another is to eliminate steps along the way. The freezer packs inside ready-to-eat meal kits allow people to enjoy their “Beef Medallions & Brown Butter Caper Sauce” and “Thai Curry Chicken with Carrots & Bok Choy” in pre-measured portions without ever having to go to a grocery store. Blue Apron, the most prominent of these ready-to-eat meal companies, sends out millions of six-pound ice packs filled with sodium polyacrylate, a powder that when mixed with water melts much more slowly than water alone. This created both a personalized cold chain and an environmental disaster, due to excess packaging.

The historian Jenny Leigh Smith has described the practices of the Soviet ice cream industry in similar terms. Unable to afford the creation of an elaborate cold chain based on mechanical refrigeration, Soviet vendors during the 1950s and 1960s simply put dry ice in their insulated pushcarts and used that to keep their product cold as they sold it on the streets. It’s a good reminder that effective refrigeration technologies are not always expensive — they just have to meet the particular needs of the situation at any point in the cold chain.

Another way to make the cold chain move faster is by using refrigeration to speed natural processes that need to occur before perishable products are sold. When the food and science writer Nicola Twilley visited one of New York City’s four main banana distributors, he told her that the energy coming off just a single box of ripening bananas “could heat a small apartment.” The firm’s ripening room was designed to control output by blowing cold air through the boxes. The ripening of some fruit is accelerated, while in other cases it gets slowed down. It all depends upon matching supply with market demand. [Read our story, “How the Bodega Gets the Banana,” for more about the long journey of this ubiquitous tropical fruit.]


When perishables are harvested in season but need to be distributed out of season, cold storage is required. The idea of cold storage dates to around the turn of the 20th century, when mechanical refrigeration was just becoming reliable enough for producers to entrust their livelihoods to these third parties along the cold chain. While new fast train lines could bring fresh-picked strawberries from Florida or melons from California to areas with harsher climates, the easiest way to defy seasonality was to store local produce in newly built refrigerated warehouses for perishable foods of all kinds.

The effects of these changes were noticeable immediately. “Twenty years ago,” explained a 
reporter for the New York Sun in 1894, “[p]ears which sell today two for five cents were 40 cents apiece, and black Hamburg grapes…were only to be had from hothouse growers and were worth $1 a pound. The luscious great cherries which were so plentiful a few weeks ago were unknown in our markets, prunes were known only as a dried fruit, and apricots and nectarines were rare enough to be but a tradition among the greater part of the people.” At that time, rare meant expensive, but not impossible to purchase for special occasions — for instance, buying oranges only at Christmastime.

Storage itself can be expensive even now because of the energy it requires, but it remains an essential component to using refrigeration to transcend seasonality. Everything from eggs to apples (apart from canned, pickled or dried versions) would be seasonally unavailable without cold storage.

The final link in the cold chain, the electric household refrigerator, is a kind of personal cold storage. When the first reliable, affordable, electric household refrigerator went on the market in 1927, it became an instant sensation. It meant that people no longer had to buy food quite so often as before. This was cold storage for your home. By 1960, there was a modern fridge in nearly every home in the country.

Refrigerators allow consumers to time their purchases far better than they would otherwise. In countries like France, where refrigerators are far smaller than they are in the United States, many consumers gladly visit local markets every day so that they can be assured the best flavor possible from their perishable products. By contrast, in the United States, grocery shopping only once a week is a common way to avoid the inconvenience of driving to the Walmart Supercenter and waiting in the checkout line more often. Stores like Costco, which sell huge packages of frozen goods, thrive on this American tendency to favor convenience over taste.


Future technological developments in our web of cold chains will likely occur in the parts that we don’t see. Bring the cost of storage and transport down, and producers can enter new markets or lower costs for consumers so that more people can afford to eat fresh. These changes will require increasing the scale of what travels through cold chains. Perishable products that are still too expensive for most consumers to buy regularly might become more accessible.

Dragon fruit (pitaya), for example, is well-known enough to be a flavor of VitaminWater, but just try buying an actual dragon fruit in the produce section at even a store like Whole Foods. Maybe it can be done in some places at certain times of the year, but it is far from easy. Grow the supply and cultivate the demand, and a cold chain could evolve to service it.

Apart from refrigeration itself, many important developments in cold chain history have involved improvements in transportation — airplanes or refrigerated containers for transoceanic shipping. With all the links in the chain fully refrigerated now, what might future technological improvements look like? Will your meal kits soon arrive via drone? That depends on whether it can be done efficiently and cost effectively. Improvements in the energy efficiency of refrigeration will also help increase the availability of foods to people at all economic levels if those savings are shared with consumers in a meaningful way.

Increased access to perishable foods of all kinds has been a sign of growth in our food provisioning system ever since the advent of ice refrigeration in the early 19th century. The web of cold chains this process has created stretches across the planet. Even countries that do not benefit from being the endpoint of a cold chain probably produce perishable products that could not be sold elsewhere without refrigeration technologies. While it is unlikely that the changes in diet promoted by future changes in technology can surprise middle-class Americans anymore, anything that can be done to bring the same food choices and relatively low prices to the rest of the world will benefit all of humanity.

Quick History of Consumer Ice

In the early 19th century, ice took long journeys across the globe. Cut from lakes around Boston and packed onto ships, it might be sold as far away as India. Today, anyone can get all the ice they need on demand at local convenience stores. The Ice Factory, developed in 1992, was the first of a new breed of automatic ice machines. It manufactures ice on demand and even bags it for you automatically. This eliminates both delivery and storage costs. It allows people to stock up on ice when they need it for parties and barbecues, yet still use their home freezers for their day-to-day needs the rest of the year. Prior to the Ice Factory, one ice manufacturing plant could pack enough bags to satisfy demand within a 100-mile radius.

Modern Times Cold Calling?

Expensive “smart” refrigerators, like the Internet of Things in general, are really just a way to convince consumers that they need to replace appliances that work perfectly well as-is with new ones hooked up to the World Wide Web so that they can impress their friends with how modern their home is. At this moment in time, the benefits of owning a networked refrigerator do not justify its cost. If you can send email from your computer or your phone, you have no need to send it from your fridge. Refrigerators have certainly gotten bigger since 1960. However, they don’t keep food any fresher.

History of the Cold Chain

From ice harvesting in New England to home refrigerators that can monitor their contents and send a text when you’re low on eggs, milestones along the cold chain have transformed how and what Americans eat. There was a time when pineapples and bananas were rare sites outside of tropical climates. And the idea of eating fish caught in Japanese waters yesterday while sitting in a Texas sushi restaurant today was unimaginable. No more. Check out some of the more memorable moments of the last two centuries of the refrigeration revolution.


Frederick Tudor sends the first commercial shipment of ice by sea in world history from Boston to Martinique. Most of what survives the trip melts because the customers don’t know what to do with the product. Below, Tudor’s workers divide a pond into a chessboard pattern and cut ice into two-foot square blocks.


Florida doctor John Gorrie patents a commercial ice machine he developed while trying to invent what we now know as air-conditioning. It does not prove commercially viable.


Meat-packing magnate Gustavas Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase to design an ice-cooled rail car that would enable the shipment of processed carcasses across long distances. The result was a well-insulated yet ventilated car, in which the meat was packed tightly at the bottom of the car, and ice was kept at the top, allowing the chilled air to flow naturally downward.

1880 & 1890

The first ice famine grips the Hudson Valley. The New York market turns to Maine for its ice, leading to vast growth in the infrastructure for providing ice there and the growth of ice for domestic consumption in the United States in general. A second ice famine grips the Hudson Valley. In response, ice equipment makers work hard to improve the efficiency of commercial ice machines and largely succeed by 1900.


The total number of electric household refrigerators sold in the United States tops 1,000 for the first time.


Thomas B. Slate applies for the US patent on dry ice. A year later, the DryIce Corporation of America trademarked solid carbon dioxide, giving it a moniker that has lasted nearly 100 years. The company began marketing dry ice for deep refrigeration.


Clarence Birdseye patents a better form of flash freezing, which will eventually make mass-marketed frozen foods possible.


General Electric is responsible for bringing the cold chain into homes. In 1927, the “Monitor-Top” fridge cost around $520 — equivalent to $7,000 today — and helped lucky families keep leftovers fresh. Refrigerator design saw an update to the more familiar integrated box style in the 1940s.

Check out this amazing collection of antique iceboxes.


Before the refrigerated rail car became a key part of the cold chain, leafy greens like lettuce were too delicate to survive a long journey packed in ice. The solution? Iceberg (or crisphead) lettuce, introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s to be hearty enough to reach salad bowls hundreds of miles away.


Railroads gradually stop using ice for refrigerated shipping as mechanical refrigeration technology becomes cheap and small enough to install in individual railroad cars.


Frigidaire introduces the first frost-proof refrigerator, eliminating the need for customers to defrost their appliances at all. “Frigi-Foam” insulation allowed for the first Frost-Proof refrigerator-freezer.


The Radio Cap Corporation introduced the Koozie™, a Styrofoam sleeve designed to insulate a chilled beverage from warming up due to conduction or heat radiation. Many a cold beverage will be kept cold.


Jim Stuart invents the ice factory, the first ice machine that produces and bags ice cubes on demand. This eliminated the need for centralized ice production in regular, larger ice factories.


The introduction of the Internet-enabled or “smart” refrigerator. Not enough people have decided that refrigerators that tell you what should be on your shopping list are worth the added expense and potential problems of buying yet another Internet-enabled device.


High-end cooler brand YETI was founded in Austin by brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders. Their new design for a heavy-duty cooler that could stand up to abuse during fishing trips and retain ice for hours started as gear for serious outdoors people and has evolved into a multi-product cult brand. And it keeps your beer cold for a long time.


Blue Apron begins shipping meal kits, including meats and seafood items sandwiched between ice packs to ensure freshness past delivery.


Internet-enabled refrigerators, which first appeared in 1998, now have cameras and the ability to text you with messages about what might be running low inside. In the same year, both Wired and Forbes magazines published stories lauding high-tech fridges and wondering if 2014 was the year they’d finally take hold.