Describe the principal forces that have shaped the evolution of the US food distribution system in the past one hundred years (McLaughlin & Gomez, 2015).
The food system is constantly evolving. Food distribution includes all the processes between a production and consumption of food. For example, agricultural production, processing and manufacturing, food brokers, food wholesalers, food retailers, and food service outlets (Mclaughlin & Gomez, 2015). The current food distribution system has evolved significantly over the last 100 years. By 2007, the principal entities of the U.S. food distribution system employed 13 percent of US civilian force (Mclaughlin & Gomez, 2015). From the year 1954 to the year 2007, the U.S. food distribution system employee numbers increased from 8,875,925 to 19,615,279 respectively (USDA, 2009). Below is an infographic which explains the financial breakdown of the U.S. food system in 2010. The total value of food purchases by the U.S. consumers in 2010 was about $1.2 trillion (Gomez & Hernandez, 2013).
Source: (Gomez & Hernandez, 2013).
In the early 1900s, most of the food consumed in the United States was locally produced. Nearly all buyers and sellers including farmers, shippers, grain elevator operators, canners, brokers, truckers, various wholesalers, retailers, and eateries were independently run and poorly coordinated (Mclaughlin & Gomez, 2015). However, the dominance of the family farms and family firms reduced over time. The nineteenth-century industrial revolution and the emergence of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the twentieth century dramatically changed the farming in the United States (Francis, 2015). With these principal changes, a new era of the food distribution system started.
Source: Gomez & Hernandez, 2013
By the middle of the twentieth century, dramatic structural and technological changes took place in the food distribution system. Agricultural techniques improved with the use of mechanical seeders, steel plow, and steam-powered threshers, allowing farmers to manage large farmlands (Francis, 2015). These advancements increased the agricultural productivity as new farming methods reshaped the multiple enterprise farms to larger more specialized farms, which focused on a limited number of commodities (Mclaughlin & Gomez, 2015). The average farm size increased from 100-200 acres to more than 400 acres (National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2009). These changes prompted the rise of industrial agriculture, which we presently experience.
Traditionally, locally produced commodities and products were used for consumption by local communities and raising livestock. However, now, products or commodities from industrial farms enter distribution system to be transported from the farm to production of biofuels, domestic consumption, livestock feed, and export. As farm productivity increased, the need for achieving efficiency in transport, refrigeration, storage, packaging, and selling techniques also increased to handle the increased volume of food entering the food distribution system.
In early twentieth century, “service grocery stores” dominated the food markets. But, this changed with increased consumer demand for the availability of “one-stop shopping” stores (Mclaughlin & Gomez, 2015). Also, labor became more expensive, revolutionary “supermarkets” were conceived. This was among the most important developments in the history of US food distribution system in the past one hundred years, which shaped the system the way it is now. In the 1950s, Supermarkets were roughly 13,600 square feet which rapidly grew to more than 200,000 square feet by the year 2000 (Mclaughlin & Gomez, 2015). As store area increased, their capacity to accommodate more products, departments, and services increased with it. This revolutionary change in food retail brought insurgent change in US food distribution system.
In the early 1900s, food consumption outside of the home accounted for 10 percent of all consumer expenditure and more than one hundred years later, consumer expenditure on outside food increased to almost 50 percent in 2010 (USDA, 2013). The increasing consumption of outside food increased parallel with increasing food service sector.
All of these core changes in the system also triggered the changes in how food is transported to the consumers via markets. Technological advances in food processing and transportation with decreasing oil prices have allowed industries to move greater quantities of food faster and over longer distances than ever before possible (Halweil, 2002). Technological advances such as refrigerated trucks, have allowed industries to transport perishable foods like meat, eggs, and produce over longer distances (Martinez et al., 2010). The distance food is transported or traveled from, where it is grown or raised, to where it is purchased and consumed by consumers is called “the food miles”. The food miles have increased significantly in last one hundred years. With increasing urban population with no space for farming or food production locally, the transportation of the foods or food miles were bound to increase.
Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence of activity by small- and mid- scale farmers producing fruits, vegetable, specialty crops, and livestock for local and regional markets. These farms often focus on direct sale to consumers through farmer’s market, farm stands, and community supported agriculture (Francis, 2015). Direct sale to consumers via farm to institution program, restaurants and, through conventional grocery channels are also popular. More technological advances, changing consumer needs, evolving social conditions, and environmental impacts will shape the future agricultural practices (Francis, 2015). We can expect that the food distribution system will keep evolving over the coming years and decades.
Francis, C. A. (2015). Crop Production and Food Systems. In R. A. Neff (Ed.), Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity (pp. 265-287). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gomez, M. I., & Hernandez, J. N. (2013). The US Food Distribution System: Concepts and Evolution. Retrieved from http://www.hort.cornell.edu/bjorkman/lab/broccoli/Reports/Webinar_US_Distribution_System.pdf
Halweil, B., Prugh, T., & Worldwatch Institute. (2002). Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.
Martinez, S., Hand, M., Da Pra, M., Pollack, S., Ralston, K., Smith, T., Vogel, S., Clark, S., Lohr, L., Low, S., & Newman, C. (2010). Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Washington, DC.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
McLaughlin, E. W., & Gomez, M. I. (2015). Food Distribution. R. A. Neff (Ed.), Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity (pp. 345-370). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (2013). Food Expenditure Series. Retrieved from www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-august/price-inflation-for-food-outpacing-many-other-spending-categories.aspx#.U1a1Wvk7u-1
US Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. (2009). Trends in US Agriculture. Retrieved from www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Trends_in_U.S._Agriculture/Farm_Population/index.asp