Food Banks of the Future
LAST year a million families in the United States made regular deposits and withdrawals in a new kind of savings bank. These transactions involved pounds rather than dollars — pounds of pork and veal and beef, pounds of peas and strawberries, pounds of snap beans and cherries, and even orange juice. These families deposited food when prices were low, and drew it out again when they got hungry. The banks paid interest in the form of economies in out-of-season prices and a better year-round diet. Food banks in this country constitute a fiveyear-old industry already capitalized to the tune of $30,000,000, whose amazingly rapid development is a factor of tremendous significance in American life.
Properly known as refrigerated locker plants, food banks are actually an offshoot of the fast-growing quick-freezing industry. According to experts, the principle of quick freezing and the subzero storage of food is not to be confused with outmoded cold-storage methods. Food merely stored at zero temperatures freezes slowly and imperfectly, and thaws into a tasteless, unappetizing state. Microscopic analysis of thawing food discloses that the juices responsible for color and flavor escape through broken cell walls, ruptured by large ice crystals formed during the slow-freezing process.
Quick freezing takes advantage of a simple physical phenomenon — the fact that the size of ice crystals varies indirect ratio to the speed of freezing. Thus, when temperature is brought swiftly down through the critical range between thirty and zero degrees, tiny crystals are formed which do not break through cell walls. Bacterial action, too, is retarded by quick freezing. So quick-frozen food thaws with all the original color and flavor intact, and spoils much less quickly than cold-storage food. Research in this field has been carried on for years in every agricultural school and government experimental farm, and there is unimpeachable evidence to prove that vitamins and enzymes are retained in quick-frozen food in the same amounts as are present in freshly picked fruits and vegetables.
Even more important than the technical improvements which have made quick freezing and locker storage possible are the effects of this new industry on American farm economy.
The farmer, as the wry old anecdote has it, sells everything the merchant will buy. What the merchant won’t buy, the farmer feeds to his hogs. What the hogs won’t eat, he eats himself.
The fact is that, although he raises food, the farmer has long been in the strange position of selling what he raises at wholesale and buying what he eats at retail. With more than half our farm families reporting an annual gross income of less than a thousand dollars, it is easy to understand why fresh meat is a luxury on the very farms that raise meat for the market. On the day he delivers a pair of prime hogs to the local packers’ representative, receiving 4½ cents a pound on the hoof, the farmer may stop at the village meat market to buy a dozen pork chops for the evening meal, at twenty-five cents a pound.
But suppose he sells only one hog, and delivers the other to the local locker plant for his own family’s use. The hogs weigh 225 pounds apiece. For the one he sells, the farmer is paid $19.13 in cash. At the locker plant the second hog is slaughtered and dressed (all food banks have complete butchering facilities), and hung in the chill room for two or three days until body heat is dissipated. Then it is cut to specifications, — 13 pounds of chops, 12 pounds of loin roast, 29 pounds of cured ham, 25 pounds of bacon, 19 pounds of sausage, and so forth, — wrapped in moisture-proof parchment paper, and placed in the quick freezer. After that it is stored in the farmer’s locker.
In a few weeks the locker plant’s statement is received, showing a total charge of $4.10 for butchering, cutting, hickory curing, sausage making, lard rendering, and freezing. On a prorated basis, about $1.33 could be charged against the hog for locker rental. Add this total to the wholesale value of one hog, $19.13, and the farmer has 163 pounds of excellent meat at a total cost of $24.56. The retail value of the same amount of meat is about $40.25, so that the farmer saves no less than $15.69 on one hog.
Similar economies are effected on about 800 pounds of meat and poultry every year, which is the amount ‘put through ‘ the average locker according to studies made by the National Frozen Food Locker Association, a group of plant owners and operators.
The cash saving made possible through locker service is not too impressive until we compare it with the average farm family’s total food budget. An annual saving of $50 to $150 on a total expenditure of $250 to $450 is comparatively great, and means that cash formerly spent across the meat counter in the general store now goes to the other side of the store for shoes for the children and paint for the buildings. Or it goes upstairs, over the store, into the dentist’s office.
More significant than savings on the food bill, however, are the changes in farm diet from the standpoint of health and variety. Thanks to the locker plant, farm families accustomed to winter menus heavy with potatoes, flour, and grease are now enjoying the unfamiliar delights of garden-fresh broccoli in the dead of winter, strawberries and peaches with cream in February, corn on the cob all year round, and even such exotic items as frog legs and sliced orange juice.
Locker-plant storage is a natural outgrowth of the use of cold to delay food spoilage. Long ago the farmer learned to store his field and orchard produce until prices went up or, in the case of garden truck, until his family needed it. In fruit cellar, springhouse, sometimes in storage barns shared with the neighbors, the farmer has always used natural cold for temporary preservation of fruits, meats, and vegetables.
But meat so stored had to be withdrawn quickly. Fruits, with the exception of hard tree fruits, soon spoiled. The local icehouse helped to solve the problem in part, but when the really hot months of summer arrived, eating fresh meat meant buying for cash at the local butcher shop.
Eventually the storage of meat and produce in icehouses led to the construction of separate boxes, artificially cooled the year round, for the users of coldstorage facilities. And at Crete, Nebraska, in 1910, farmers began to call their artificially refrigerated storage rooms ‘locker plants.’
The modern locker plant is a far cry from the old icehouse. It may be any size or shape. Some are giant ‘supers,’ with more than a thousand individual lockers, streamlined and chrome-plated. On the other hand, some are mere installations in disused railroad way-stations. Any well-constructed building can be insulated and cut up into the various rooms necessary for efficient locker service.
The typical service plant is usually divided into five rooms, for chilling, aging, processing, quick freezing, and storage. In addition to these, there may be a receiving room, waiting room, office, and space reserved for supply storage. Incidental equipment is important and expensive. The chill room and the aging room must, for instance, be supplied with overhead track and trolley equipment. The cutting or processing room in an up-to-date plant is really a first-class butcher shop, equipped with chopping blocks, power saw, grinder, scale, wrapping paper, and nearly a score of rubber stamps for identification of packaged food. The quick freezer must have special refrigerator doors to conserve zero to minus-fifteen-degree temperatures, and the locker room itself must be carefully and expensively insulated to maintain similar temperatures. The latest wrinkle in storage rooms, by the way, is the complete submerging of lockers below the floor, to eliminate the discomfort of making deposits and withdrawals in a frigid room. You merely stand on the top of somebody else’s locker while your own is hoisted up on pulleys suspended from the ceiling!
Today about a million locker-plant patrons withdraw two million pounds of meat, fish, poultry, and other foods from lockers every day. In five years refrigerated locker storage has become a sturdy young industry, with plants springing up at the rate of fifty a week. There were nearly four thousand food banks in operation in the United States by the end of 1940.
Today locker plants are concentrated in a belt running through the Middle Western states. The first plant in Minnesota was opened at Waseca in 1935. In October 1939, the University of Minnesota counted 213. Iowa had six plants in 1934; today, with more than 500, this state is approaching a saturation point. One expert estimates that only 140 towns of 100 population or over are without locker-plant service in Iowa.
The greatest growth during the past months has been recorded in the South, where locker plants are hailed as a new hope for raising living standards. Texas’s first plant was opened only eighteen months ago, but Texas A. and M. counted 31 by last October and predicts a total of more than 500 by the end of 1942.
The latest Department of Agriculture survey, which was completed in July 1940, counted a total of 3958 locker plants in the United States. If these plants were evenly distributed throughout the country, there would be one for every town of 2500 or more. However, the grouping of plants varies all the way from one in the state of Arizona to more than 500 in Iowa.
Like any other industry in a pellmell state of development, locker-plant service has not yet set up any national standards. Processing charges vary widely from one section of the country to another. Methods of freezing and wrapping are different in almost every plant. Some recommend packing fruits and vegetables in glass jars at the farm before they are brought to the plant, while others increase income by selling paper containers and insisting on the preparation of fruits and vegetables by plant personnel.
The organization of state locker associations is one stabilizing factor in the industry. Many states already have functioning associations, and at Des Moines, Iowa, last December these groups met to form the National Frozen Food Locker Association. The object, of course, is to set up standards for cost and generally to bring about some order in an expanding and uncoördinated industry. Another object is to foresee federal standards of service, price, equipment, and sanitation. In some states, legislation has already been effected. It costs $50 for a license in Pennsylvania right now, $25 in Illinois, and $10 in Nebraska.
Consumer education and improved service are the two most important immediate objectives to be attained by the locker-plant industry. Most disadvantages of locker service can be remedied by better management and plant operation. The most common criticism, for example, to be heard from potential locker users is the inconvenience of traveling long distances to the plant two or three times a week. To meet this objection, some of the chains and larger independent operators are building branch plants consisting of a hundred-odd lockers. Located in outlying districts, these subplants require only a small compressor and automatic controls to preserve low temperatures, and are serviced regularly by truck from the central plant. Thus food can be processed at the headquarters unit and then stored in the most convenient branch.
A significant new development in this industry is the gradual introduction of locker plants into big cities. Many of the large towns in the Midwest — Des Moines and Minneapolis, for instance — now have one or more plants. Coldstorage warehouses and artificial ice plants are discovering that, with only slight changes in equipment, locker rooms can be installed as an inexpensive means of increasing income.
And while lockers in rural areas seem to be used mostly by large families with middle-class incomes, the urban plant appeals more to families in the low income brackets. To avail themselves of locker service, city workers must plan ahead, pay cash for wholesale quantities of food, have quarters of beef cut into steaks and roasts by the local butcher, and forgo many of the customary retail conveniences. But they overlook these disadvantages in an effort to obtain better, cheaper food. That this trend is well on the way is indicated by the fact that even in semirural areas more than half the lockers are rented to townspeople.
There are already apartment-size units on the market for storing quickfrozen foods, and most refrigerator manufacturers were featuring subzero compartments for the same purpose in last year’s models. While these are primarily suited for keeping frozen foods bought at retail, they will undoubtedly speed the acceptance of locker-plant storage in wholesale quantities in urban areas.
The recent development of a selfcontained locker unit with forty-eight storage lockers, adaptable for use in normal-temperature rooms, may make the economy of locker use available to metropolitan apartment dwellers. One of these installations, which costs approximately $2000, is just as safely guarded and convenient to use as an ordinary safe-deposit box. Each patron has a key to his own locker, and is admitted to the storage room by a watchman or superintendent. The picture of one of these neat units in the basement of a huge apartment building — serviced by a central plant and managed by the building superintendent — is far from fantastic.
And perhaps it is no Jules Verne dream to predict the day when locker storage of food will be a decisive factor in America’s independence. A nation adequately equipped with lockers to store food in emergencies would have little to fear from blockades, or from the famine which Europe faces this winter.