Food Movement: Wheels, Water, Rail, and Air

May 6, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Image RemovedThis is part 3 of our serialization of Chapter 4 (Energy) from the latest Resilience guide, "Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems". This excerpt looks at the challenge of moving food from farm to plate. 
Distribution drives the food system. It’s currently the fastest-shifting sector in our food system, in part because it’s market-driven and steered by technological development. When we don our energy lenses, we quickly see that a local farmer bringing food to the local market in a pickup truck is efficient only if the distance between the farm and the market is very short. The more a food transportation vehicle is built for moving large amounts of food across significant expanses, the more energy-efficient that vehicle tends to be (see fig. 4-5). Ironically for the local food advocate, transportation efficiency actually peaks with oceangoing ships, declines slightly with rail and more so with diesel trucks, and finally diminishes with the iconic farmers’ market pickup. It’s only in compact cities and small rural towns that energy efficiency can jump back up with the farmer back in the driver’s seat—or rather, the saddle. Bicycle transport wins the efficiency game in linking local farms to consumers right in the neighborhood.
Rebuilding local food systems faces two contrasting challenges with transportation:
  • Underdeveloped expertise and infrastructure for moving local food from the farm to the local consumer efficiently and cost-effectively.
  • The daunting influx of inexpensive foods from distant places that overwhelm the nascent local food marketplace.
Inherent in both challenges is, again, the issue of scale: scale of production, scale of processing, scale of distribution, and certainly scale of purchasing, all of which impact product availability and price. When we hit the distribution issue, we see the challenge of taking on the Goliaths of the food world with nothing but a slingshot in the form of a pickup truck.
Local food initiatives have to take the physical movement of food seriously. From both an energy perspective and a consideration of an appropriate economy of scale, distribution is one of the greatest hurdles. Distribution is fraught with complexity, and generalizations about it seldom work. At the risk of oversimplification, much of the early activist work in rebuilding local food systems was based on the premise that we needed to get people to local food by way of farmers’ markets and farm-based CSAs. Now, as the reconstruction efforts mature, we are realizing that we also need to get local food to people; and not surprisingly, it turns out that it’s generally much more efficient to use a delivery vehicle to get food to people rather than having a multitude of cars converging on a farmstand or a CSA operation.
The U.S. food system is increasingly dependent on the use of freight services, that is, ships, trains, and large trucks. The good news is that freight services have, in fact, achieved some important efficiencies over the past few decades, but those advances are somewhat overshadowed by the fact that shipping distances for all food commodity categories continue to grow. Poultry, egg products, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables are all showing signs of increased energy requirements in the distribution sector.11 Sadly, given their nutritional benefits, the perishable nature of fresh fruits and vegetables means that shipping them requires more than two times the energy necessary for transporting all other types of food.12
Nonetheless, local and regional food systems advocates across the country are working passionately and quickly to come up with innovative new approaches to distribution that can overcome some of these barriers. It’s worth briefly exploring several of the newer approaches that seem to hold promise for building energy-efficient local food systems in the distribution sector.
Image Removed
Efficient Vehicles and Cleaner Fuels
Fuel is a vital concern in any distribution system. Distributors are well aware of the benefits of fuel-efficient vehicles, since fuel costs are central to their ability to achieve optimal net profits. Some distributors are also working hard to find cleaner and more ecologically appropriate fuels for their delivery operations; meanwhile, tightening pollution standards in some states and cities are encouraging movement in this direction. Perhaps no other component of the U.S. food system has such a tight link between energy efficiency and profits, nor is any other sector more vulnerable to the volatility of fuel prices. When these factors are combined, more localized distribution makes sense from both a business and a marketing perspective. A few regional food distributors are tackling energy issues head-on. For example, Veritable Vegetable, a distributor in San Francisco that ships throughout the Southwest, is converting its fleet of tractors and trailers to diesel-electric hybrids that save 35 percent in fuel consumption. (Not limiting its energy conservation efforts to the wheeled part of its operation, the company is also committed to a zero-waste policy, diverting a stunning 99 percent of its waste from landfills, and it has honed in on highly efficient refrigerated storage. It has even installed 560 rooftop photovoltaic panels to serve a portion of its warehouse electrical needs.)13
Computer Systems for Delivery and Pickup
As the demand for local and regional foods increases, distributors are looking to reduce fuel, labor, and infrastructure costs by maximizing the efficiency of on-the-road movement. Despite the relatively limited radius of local and regional distributors, delivery routes can require sophisticated and costly software. Not only are the deliveries and pickups frequent for local distributors, but the variety of products on board is often much more diverse and perishable than long-distance truckloads of identical or similar products. Think of the difference between shipping a load of watermelons across the country versus a regional distributor picking up fruits, vegetables, and artisanal meats and cheeses from a variety of farms and processors along a much shorter route and dropping them off at multiple stops. The regional distributor has a much greater challenge in maximizing efficiency.
Entrepreneurs and local food system advocates are continually developing improved software that better collects and analyzes data to coordinate pickup and drop-off times and determine efficient routes. This enhanced data analysis helps ensure maximum capacity and efficiency throughout the entire distribution run. After all, empty trucks can drive a distributor to ruin.
Regional Distribution
Volume, supply, and consistency can pose serious challenges to distributors of local products. The sum of needed volume, steady supply, and consistent quality is efficiency—efficiency in human labor and other energy sources. Efficiency translates into cost, and cost and availability drive market potential. Many distributors, therefore, have consciously adopted a regional emphasis rather than a focus on more constrained local markets. The regional scale often offers advantages and a certain confidence to large institutional buyers that are moving toward increased local purchasing. Product shortages, as well as price points that do not work within institutional constraints, quickly stymie efforts to bring local foods into the mainstream. It is interesting to note that some of these regional distributors are run under cooperative and nonprofit models, while others are privately held companies. (For a fascinating comparison of various local and regional distribution models, see the collaborative online map titled “National Distribution Models,” initiated by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin, accessible at
Food Hubs
“Food hub” is a relatively new term gaining credence among local food advocates. Although there’s no single definition, a general point of agreement swirls around another term of interest: “aggregation.” In order to address the problems of volume, supply, and consistency common in many local and regional food systems, advocates and entrepreneurs alike are developing systems for aggregating products. Aggregation simply means that an organization or a business gathers and combines local (or regional) products by sourcing from multiple farms in order to achieve the desired inventory for each product. Since scale is often an issue in creating a stable inventory of local products, aggregation becomes a means of assuring clients of a reliable local food stream. Some food hubs gather and distribute products, while others offer processing facilities. In some cases, food hubs are more about brokering relationships and building regional agricultural capacity and consumption.
Aggregation is a complex goulash. The recipe calls for entrepreneurial zest, a thickened roux of software savvy, and a medley of cooperative farms. Pallets, bins, and cases are filled with aggregated material and marketed to retailers, restaurants, institutions, and even individual consumers. Ordering and delivery are complicated enough, but efficiency often requires a pickup of products for the next cycle of aggregation, too. Regardless, aggregation is a promising avenue for increasing local food production and consumption, and careful management of the distribution system can help maximize energy efficiency.
Workplace CSAs
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms offer multiple benefits to farmers and consumers, with consumers generally picking up their produce from the farm or a designated pickup site. From an energy perspective, the most problematic aspect of the CSA model is the need for CSA subscribers to drive from a multitude of places to pick up their produce. Of course, these pickups can also serve as important relationship-building and educational opportunities, but too much driving by too many people has its costs in fossil-fuel consumption. Schedule conflicts, traffic concerns, or the inability to drive can all negatively impact a CSA’s potential consumer base. As a partial solution, the workplace CSA model adds an element of energy efficiency and convenience: A company or institution works with one or more farmers to offer its employees CSA shares delivered to the workplace for a regularly scheduled pickup. In some cases, the employer offers its employees the option of a regular payroll deduction to cover the costs of the CSA share over time. The employer might even contribute a portion of the costs, provide coolers to employees for storing the produce while they’re at work, or allow farmers to set up a booth or tent for additional sales.
Internet Orders for Home Delivery
Putting this concept on paper (or into an e-book) is perhaps unwise, since the velocity of the Internet-driven world far exceeds the capacity of the publishing world to keep up. As you read this chapter, some enterprising local food advocate or businessperson is probably sitting at a computer devising or revising a method for selling local foods online. Sometimes these entrepreneurial models are farm-based, while at other times they are linked to distributors and aggregators in various guises. In many cases, customers enter their orders online in a specific time frame, and deliveries are made to customers’ homes, workplaces, or specified pickup points. Done well, these models can minimize transport distances of food products, as well as eliminate the need for consumers to jump in their car and head to the nearest (or not so near) preferred food retailer. While these home delivery services may help bring new consumers into the local food market, the convenience and flexibility of these models can impact customer bases at CSAs and farmers’ markets.

11. Patrick Canning, Ainsley Charles, Sonya Huang, Karen R. Polenske, and Arnold Waters, Energy Use in the U.S. Food System, Economic Research Report no. 94 (Washington, D.C.:USDA Economic Research Service, March 2010), 18.
12. Ibid.
13. For more information about the company and its sustainability efforts, visit the website of Veritable Vegetable at
14. “Distribution Models for Local Food,” Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, January 2009,
15. “About Us,” a history of FreeAire Refrigeration; (accessed October 2, 2012).

Image Removed Image Removed Image Removed        
Loading lemons image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

Philip Ackerman-Leist

Philip Ackerman-Leist, author of Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems (2013) and Up Tunket Road: The Education of Modern Homesteader (2009), is a professor at Green Mountain College. There he established the farm and sustainable agriculture curriculum,  is director of the Green Mountain College Farm & Food Project and also founded and directs a Masters in Sustainable Food Systems (MSFS) — the nation's first online graduate program in food systems, featuring applied comparative research of students' home bioregions. His latest book is A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement  He and his wife, Erin, farmed in the South Tirol region of the Alps and North Carolina before beginning their sixteen-year homesteading and farming venture in Pawlet, Vermont. With more than two decades of "field experience" working on farms, in the classroom, and with regional food systems collaborators, Philip's work is focused on examining and reshaping local and regional food systems from the ground up. View Philip's CV Request an interview Request as a speaker

Tags: Food System, Transportation