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. 

If you drive out of San Francisco on I-80 East, up near El Cerrito in Richmond, you'll pass the warehouse on the Bay side of the highway, just up from the marshes. It's my own personal favorite 6 million cubic feet of cold storage in America.

Here's Wolfe:

The Croker Global Foods Warehouse in the San Francisco Bay Area is not in any part of the fabled Bay Area that ever stole the heart of a songwriter. Or, as far as that goes, a travel writer, not even a travel writer desperate for something different to write about. No, the Croker warehouse is on the wrong side of the bay, the east side, not the San Francisco side but the Oakland side, up toward El Cerrito, in Contra Costa County, just off the marshes in the flatlands.

On one of those magical evenings in San Francisco when the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and people emerge from the hotels on Nob Hill and go for brave walks down the staggeringly steep slopes of Powell Street and shiver deliciously in the chilly air and listen to the happy clapper clangor of the cable cars and the mournful foghorns of the freighters heading out to sea, and all at once life is a lovely little operetta from the year 1910--at that moment, likely as not, barely five miles to the east, a brutal sun has been roasting Contra Costa County for thirteen or fourteen hours, and the roof of the Croker warehouse is still swimming in caloric waves, even though the stars are out and the mercury remains swollen up to 90 degrees, down from 104 at 3pm and the employees' parking lot, which is dirt, has been cooked to cinders until it's as parched, pocked, dusty, and godforsaken as the surface of Mars. In short, Croker Global Foods is part of the engine room, the heavy plumbing, the industrial hardpan of this Elysian littoral known as the San Francisco Bay Area.

At about 8:45 on just such an evening a young man named Conrad Hensley drove into the employees' parking lot at Croker behind the wheel of a Hyundai hatchback family wagon. Since he was wearing a full set of long johns beneath his flannel shirt and jeans, he had the air conditioning roaring away on the high setting. He cruised up and down six or seven rows of cars, churning up quite a swirl of dust as he went and finally found a spot over by a Cyclone fence with razor wire on top. Beyond the fence, against a vasty California sky bursting with stars, he could see the silhouettes of a sewage substation, the smokestack of the Bolka Rendering works, the piling of a freeway spur that was under construction, and coming toward him, overhead, low enough to touch, it seemed like, the big belly of an airplane grumbling along the glide path to the Oakland International Airport. Such was the view on this side of the scenic San Francisco Bay."

Inside the warehouse, of course, it is freezing, and Wolfe describes, at length, what working in arctic temperatures does to the bodies of the workers in the warehouse. It's not pretty, as health research has shown.

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This is where the trucks go (Alexis Madrigal).

Twilley visited dozens of outposts from the frozen archipelago -- from the Birds Eye frozen food plant in Darien, Wisconsin, a 55,000 square foot facility that processes green beans and carrots, to the Tropicana Bradenton Juice Plant in Florida, which is, at 29 million cubic feet of refrigerated storage, the "largest juice tank farm in America." (That is five times larger than the Dreisbach warehouse in Richmond, and go take a look at that on Google Maps and note its size relative to the semis parked nearby.)

All of these places are links in what is known as the "cold chain." And it's through their functioning that you get to eat fresh produce all winter and frozen french fries year round. So check out Twilley's exhibition in Culver City or online. This is your world: you're the last link in the chain.

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The Tropicana Bradenton Juice Plant (Nicola Twilley).
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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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