A Journey Into Our Food System's Refrigerated-Warehouse Archipelago

70 percent of the food we eat passes through the "cold chain" of chilled transportation and storage.
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Scene from an exhibition (Nicola Twilley).

"The diet of the average American is almost entirely dependent on the existence of a vast, distributed winter--a seamless network of artificially chilled processing plants, distribution centers, shipping containers, and retail display cases that creates the permanent global summertime of our supermarket aisles."

That's Nicola Twilley, one half of Venue and a contributor to this site, talking about her new installation at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles, "Perishable: An Exploration of the Refrigerated Landscape of America."

This is an infrastructural truth that it's possible to take as a kind of metaphor or hyperbole because it's almost impossible to believe the scale and complexity of the systems that undergird our lives. But just imagine opening your freezer and being able to see the true narrative of the foods inside. The story isn't solely one of agriculture, of farmers picking the food, and tossing it in the back of the truck. There's so much technology and transportation embedded in those frozen peas, all of which Twilley excavates. 

And it's not just the stuff in the freezer! "At least 70 percent of the food we eat each year passes through or is entirely dependent on the cold chain for its journey from farm to fork, including foods that, on the surface, seem unlikely candidates for refrigeration," Twilley writes in introducing her show. "Peanuts, for example, are stored between 34 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit in giant refrigerated warehouses across Georgia (which produces nearly half of the country's peanut harvest)."

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Ore-Ida Plant, Ontario, Oregon (CLUI).

Or take potatoes. "An astonishing 80 percent of the nation's potato output is cut, processed, frozen, bagged, and distributed as French fries," she writes. Put another way, "Of the 36 lbs of potatoes eaten by the average American every year, 29 lbs are in the form of frozen French fries." So, hypothetically, a change in the electricity markets, say, could require new ways of freezing potatoes, which could spark the search for new types of plants, and eventually lead to large-scale genetic differences between the potatoes we used to grow and the potatoes of the future. (Or as we would have written it in the 1950s, "THE POTATOES OF THE FUTURE.") We didn't get jetpacks, in part, because we were too busy building and refining the "artificial cryosphere," as Twilley calls it.

These systems, by design and necessity, exist away from the cities, and even when they're within cities, away from where the people are. You don't see them unless you work there, and if you work there, you generally don't get to tell the stories of the landscape in the popular press. 

To venture into infrastructural space is not just to leave the Beltway or the New York media world behind, but to come to know entirely different networks. The nodes on the map are different: Oakland and Richmond, not San Francisco; Long Beach and Hueneme, not LA; Newark and Wilmington, not New York.

In these geographies, the physical reasons people have long chosen certain locations retain their purchase: proximity to resources and markets, water access, transportation access, grid access. Take Allentown, Pennsylvania. It features a logistics hub "where U.S. Foods, Americold, Millard Refrigerated Services, Kraft, Ocean Spray, and others all maintain facilities," thanks to its "location at the intersection of I-78, I-476, and several East Coast railway lines. It is also close to major urban markets in the north-east corridor--but not so close that the land is expensive."

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Allentown logistics hub (Google Maps).

My point here is that this is another America. And it's neither the pastoral, wholesome family farm of Iowa political campaigns and Wendell Berry poems nor the dense Creative Class preserves where the nation's bloggers and TV producers live. Almost no one tells the stories of these places.

Except maybe Tom Wolfe. In his book, A Man in Full, one of his characters, Conrad Hensley, works in a refrigerated warehouse in the East Bay, and Wolfe uses Hensley's eyes to describe "the engine room, the heavy plumbing, the industrial hardpan" of the Bay Area.

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The Dreisbach refrigerated warehouse on a foggy morning (Alexis Madrigal).

Based on the descriptions he gives of its location and many hours of Google Map scrolling, I'm almost sure Wolfe, who worked on the book for 11 years and is famous for on-the-ground research, once stared at the Dreisbach cold storage facility and turned it into the "Croker Global Foods Warehouse" of his imagination. 

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