By Lauren Quinn Badell
Every bite has a story. Some are long and arduous, clocking in miles of travel, over oceans and across vast landscapes. Others are just a few feet, from a backyard garden to a dinner plate. Most, however, are a combination of these. Such is the case with the bite Food+City mapped for the 2016 SXSW FoodTech event at El Naranjo in Austin.
A savory pork skewer with pumpkin seed green pipian, a traditional Mexican sauce that’s tangy and herbal with a kick of spice, was the bite of choice.
The 11 different parts of this dish followed many trajectories, from Chef Iliana de la Vega’s Austin backyard garden to as far as China and India. The sum of all legs of the journey is more than 27,000 miles — longer than the circumference of the Earth.
Within all of these miles, the ingredients are transferred from hands to pallets to shipping containers on land and sea. They undergo a deluge of logistical processes about which the average consumer is completely unaware (especially when overtaken by the sensory sensations of a particularly delicious meal).
The main character of this bite, the pork, came from Alderland Farm in New Providence, Iowa, before being sent to a harvesting facility in Sioux City. A further distance than one might expect, given the momentum of the local food movement in places like Austin. But Niman Ranch, the network of farms and ranches to which Alderland belongs, offered some perspective. Not all “local” farms are large enough to grow their own feed — which must be transported to the farm from somewhere else, raising the carbon footprint you may have sought to lower by buying locally.
In addition to Niman Ranch’s attention to lowering their carbon footprint, they are also invested in the traceability of their products. They have developed a system wherein each animal is tagged with a farm-specific tattoo and each cut is then identified with a farm-specific tag. A sample from each hog is sent to Iowa State University for testing. As a retailer, if you wanted to know anything about your pork — from the location of the farm to the veterinary schedule and feed records — you simply provide the loin tag and case number to a representative of Niman Ranch.
Most of the supporting cast of characters were coordinated by Segovia Produce. Working with farms in the United States, as well as handling the procurement and transport of imports, Segovia supplies produce for El Naranjo, as well as many other restaurants around the city.
The company, owned and operated by the Segovia family since 1972, knows a lot about what it takes to move food. These experts in food distribution employ Primus Labs, a food safety company, to inspect and certify every link in the supply chain, ensuring safety and security from farm to market. Their trucks have systems in place for temperature control, as well as optimized security. The cold chain is monitored by the drivers upon leaving and returning to their trucks and also by a temperature box that will inform the person receiving the order whether the optimal temperature range was broken at any point along the way. Chef Iliana could find out the temperature of her onions from the beginning of their journey in Tamaulipas, Mexico, to their warehouse in Austin to El Naranjo.
Food isn’t just about temperature control. Segovia Produce noted that south of the border, drivers have to be aware of the movement of drug cartels and steer clear of routes that could be compromised. Theft is a major problem in produce transportation in Mexico, a risk that must be managed.
Sysco is one of the better-known players in the food supply industry and an innovator in logistics and transportation. Their sunflower seed oil is tracked throughout its journey. GPS monitors every Sysco shipment with temperature-controlled transportation and warehousing from pickup to delivery. After processing in Illinois and packaging in Georgia, the sunflower seed oil arrives in Sysco’s warehouse in Schertz, Texas. There, food items are transported by hydrogen-powered forklifts to different quarters determined by optimal temperature.
The story of this bite was told, piece by piece, at the FoodTech event. Through a map that highlighted every leg of its journey, attendees were able to taste the flavor of the garlic while tracing its journey from California. They discussed the miles we rarely consider and the army of workers from around the world required to supply even the smallest bite of food.
What if we considered these food miles in our daily lives? How would it start to change our discussion about food, our relationship with it? How can we bring more transparency to the food supply chain? To feed more people? To stop wasting as much?
Every bite has a story. Let’s start telling them.