Food Miles... Do they matter?
I hear a lot of people talk about food miles. It seems to be a common phrase when talking about local food. If you are not familiar with the term, it just means the amount of miles it takes your food to get to your plate. According to Indiana Grown, Hoosiers import 90% of their food. From my work in the transportation industry, I believe the number is actually a little higher. So when you think of food miles, what comes to mind. A box truck pulling up to a farm and loading various produce and then trucking it to a grocery store? Does the image of a large ship carrying bananas and mangoes pulling into port enter your thought process. Maybe you just don't think about it. The tomatoes and heads of lettuce appear magically in the produce aisle and that is good enough for you. Besides, when local produce is in season you are happy to pay a little more for something grown in the county or at least the state you live in, right? Well, you should be paying less if it's grown here and that will be explained as you read further.
Freightliner, Kenworth, Reefer, Bill of Lading, Hours of Service, Twic Card, FMCSR, Freight Broker, Grocery Warehouse... If all these terms sound foreign to you, then your understanding of food miles is probably not as extensive as you thought. So let's take a large red bell Pepper that you would buy at your local grocer right now. A common place for this Bell Pepper to originate in would be Valdosta, GA. this time of year. Just yesterday I paid $1.40 for two large bell peppers. So .80 cents isn't bad. Let's talk about my .80 cent bell pepper, why it costs .80 cents and how it got here.
The average produce farm in Valdosta is charging .12 cents per pepper. Think about that... TWELVE CENTS! They actually pack the peppers in waxed coated 1 and 1/9 bushel boxes which hold approximately 50 large bell peppers. They are paid $5.85 per box. They usually end up at a local packing house where multiple boxes of red bell peppers are aggregated with other red bell peppers from other local farms. A purchasing agent from a large chain grocer will then call the packing house, make their Indianapolis order of red bell peppers and wait for them to arrive at their regional distribution center. The packing house will mark up 200% charging the large chain grocer $17.55 per bushel without shipping.
Shipping: An average tractor-trailer, with the trailer being a refrigerated unit(reefer) the truck can legally scale 42,500 lbs. Legally scale just means the amount of freight in pounds the tractor trailer is allowed to haul. Commercial Trucks cannot weigh more than 80,000 lbs total. So that means the truck that picks up my red bell pepper holds 1,087 bushels or approximately 54,350 red bell peppers. My red bell pepper must travel 762 miles from Valdosta to Indianapolis. The carrier (trucking company) that hauls your red bell pepper will charge an average of $1,800 plus an 18% fuel surcharge for both the truck and the reefer giving you a grand total of $2,124.00. Expensive, right? I'm glad that I don't have to pay those exorbitant transportation costs... Oh wait, I do because the large chain grocer just passes that cost of to the consumer. So the packing house charges the large chain grocer .27 cents per pepper, but once you add in the cost just to get my pepper to Indianapolis, the pepper is now .30 cents. Now my Red Bell Pepper has arrived at the large chain grocers regional distribution center. The doors are swung open, sometimes a temperature is taken to assure quality. The skids of bell peppers are unloaded into a staging area, the bushel boxes are broken down into smaller lots onto other skids and then loaded onto "city" delivery trucks. One city delivery truck might take 25 or 30 boxes based on the stores ordering system. The stocker unpacks the boxes and places my red bell pepper in the produce section of the store. Price is marked up %75 and my pepper does not have the same zing or deep red juice when cut, unlike the ones grown here on our farm. I'm not upset with an .80 cent red bell pepper, but that has to do with the time of year. Had my pepper crossed the Laredo Border Crossing from Mexico into Texas, it would have been closer to $1.00. If it had come through the Nogales Arizona-Mexico Border Crossing I would have paid 1.50 or more. The San Joaquin Valley or the Coachella Valley in California we could be talking almost $2.00 a pepper.
You might be wondering how on earth the Valdosta, Ga farmer can stay in business selling his crops for so cheap. Well, the average pepper growing operation there is 20-30 acres. A 20 acre pepper production farm plants 14,000 pepper plants per acre and produces around 140,000 bushels in an average yield. So a 20 acre farm can gross close to $900,000 dollars in a single season. It is all about scale. So imagine farms surrounding Indianapolis that that actually grew at this scale. They could sell direct to grocery, restaurants or the general public. There are many in our community that are on fixed incomes or low income that find grocery store produce is on the high end, especially when it is out of season. These same people typically don't participate in local food for several reasons. The number one reason by far is access. Cost can also be a factor that keeps them from being regular consumers. Large scale vegetable production farms, close to the city can be the first step in changing that.
So now that you have a basic feel for how food is shipped, let's talk about the environmental impact. 138 gallons of diesel fuel to move the truck and 22 gallons of reefer fuel to keep it cool. As much as I love trucks, they are known polluters, even with the federally mandated EGR systems, diesel trucks are 20 times more pollutant than an automobile.
So when we think about food miles, we take into account freshness, carbon foot print, and most importantly, price. As the demand for truck drivers increase, the cost of freight will also increase. Not to mention how fuel fluctuations can drive up food costs when trucked(shipped) from other regions of the country.
If we could really start scaling up vegetable production farms surrounding Indianapolis and rely on them, even seasonally, to feed Central Indiana, we could see a huge impact with more food access, job creation, and a positive impact on our environment. Food miles matter. Encourage local farms to grow by supporting them whenever you can.