I’m often asked “are you the farmers’ market in front of the Y?” I say “no”, and gently explain that you cannot grow bananas and pineapples in Massachusetts. This has prompted me to follow the food distribution from our food suppliers in Melrose and answer my own burning question – why am I working so hard to grow the farmers’ market in Melrose? We already have food all around us. Why go through this much work?
I started my quest at Green Street Natural Foods. I’ve been going to Green Street since 2008 buying fresh organic produce, dried beans and seeds, herbs that I can take back in my own jars, fresh ground wheat flour, and a bunch of other things. Winnie and Jerry Cantin began the store in 1975. It’s a small family owned business run out of a building at the end of the driveway on Green Street. Winnie and Jerry passed the business onto their son, Jason, who now runs the store. The day I went to the store to ask where their produce comes from, Winnie and Jerry were there. Winnie was very helpful in answering my questions about following the produce from farm to store. Green Street receives 2 or 3 deliveries each week from Alberts Organics. Winnie explained that the produce comes from all over the world including California, South Carolina, Florida, New Zealand, Argentina, and even New England when it’s available. She said the vegetables would be picked early in the morning from the farm, washed, brought by truck to a cold storage facility warehouse, trucked to another hub, then trucked to the retail store – all in refrigerated trucks to maintain freshness.
I was lucky to have been at the store on Monday when they received a delivery. Mike Wagner, who brought the produce in from the truck coming from their New Hampshire warehouse, explained that they have a smaller warehouse than their sister terminal in New Jersey but move more produce from it. He explained that in addition to the trucks that come from all over the country to bring fresh produce, there is a trucking company who drives around western Massachusetts to the area farms there and drops them off at a storage facility in the Pioneer Valley – it is conceivable that the farms would pick that morning, a truck would bring it to the Pioneer Valley warehouse, Alberts would pick it up that same afternoon and deliver it to their New Hampshire warehouse, then another truck would bring the produce to the retailer, possibly the following day. On this day, Winnie and Jerry received produce which came mostly from California. Winnie said this journey from California takes 4 days if you pay extra – 2 people in the truck taking turns driving and sleeping. I didn’t ask how often they pay the extra expense. From farm to shelf, it’s about a week in cold storage if its coming from California. The only air transportation for produce is from other countries. She explained that it is impossible for the farms to distribute directly to the retail stores. She explained further that the distribution centers, which are filled with several companies receiving and shipping fresh produce, have testers who ensure the freshness of the produce they receive. If the tester finds something off, he or she will call the supervisor – the supervisor decides whether the produce should be rejected. If he or she agrees with the tester, a USDA representative, who is always on the warehouse floor, is called over. They review the produce and either confirm its rejection or not.
When the produce came in, Winnie asked me if I wanted to stay and wait for them to get the produce in cold storage (because it has to be done right away) or check out the items I came in to purchase at the time. I opted to wait. Winnie reviewed the red grapes – the stems were already brown and they would go bad quickly – they rejected them. The green grapes had some mold on them – rejected. The bananas also had a consistent bruise from a box that weighed on them in shipping – rejected. They will get a credit for these items but it will take a bit of time from Alberts. Winnie said she will now go to Baldor’s in Chelsea to get produce to replace the produce that was rejected.
My next stops were Johnny’s Foodmaster, Shaws, then Emma’s Orchard in front of the YMCA. Unfortunately, none were able to get back to me in time for me to complete my article for the newsletter. Shaw’s cited information on their corporation website, but there was nothing specific. I did find a nice article from 2008 in the Melrose Mirror on Emma’s Orchard, but that was all. What I am able to glean is that they all must follow the same truck distribution channels that our current system has mapped out for them, which typically includes a trip to Chelsea Market.
My next stop was Chelsea Market, or at least that was the name that I had always heard it called. ‘Chelsea Market’ is the name given to an area in Chelsea where there are large produce distribution hubs that come in from all over the country to distribute fresh produce every day to retail stores. The warehouses have trucks coming and going starting at 3am until about 7 or 8am when it begins to wane. By 3pm, when I was there, the place is deserted. There was a chorus of refrigeration trucks that lined the nearly empty parking lot, maintaining truck containers between 38 and 45 degrees. There were 2 large terminal centers, the newer one, New England Produce Center and the older terminal, Boston Market Terminal. Baldor Specialty Foods was down the street. I was able to walk inside the Boston Market Terminal. The 2nd floor had a long corridor lined with offices that I could hear buyers (brokers) talking with customers (super market buyers) about selling produce. I also walked into the 1st floor shipping and receiving area, now empty but probably bustling 8 hours previous. I met a man in the parking lot who owned one of the refrigerated trucks. He said that each bay in the shipping and receiving is a different company that drops off or picks up produce. This is a major terminal for most produce that is sold in grocery stores in eastern Massachusetts.
My final stop was the farmers’ market. Dick’s Market Garden is our only fruit and vegetable vendor at the market for the moment. Steve Violette, owner, has the fruits and vegetables picked that morning at his Lunenberg farm and sends them to the farmers’ market that afternoon. Some things like, nectarines and tomatoes, are picked the day before, refrigerated in the walk-in refrigerator overnight, then packed in the unrefrigerated truck with the rest of the fresh produce for that day.
I wanted to write this article on the indignity of industrial tomatoes and similar industrial food horror stories but I think that would have taken a narrow view. For better or worse, our food distribution has evolved over the last 100 years into a major network and a well oiled machine of trucking produce across the country and the world. The cost to us is great, but it doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon. There are several things that have been affected from this industrial food distribution. As Jerry Cantin at Green Street said, “the farmers are the ones that suffered.” The cost of shipping this food around the world is enormous in actual costs (I won’t even touch the incalculable costs to the environment). It includes many layers of people to be able to keep this fine piece of machine working. The farmers get a very small piece of the total amount that a tomato is sold for.
But is that the only reason to have a farmers’ market because we want to be charitable to the farmers? Of course it isn’t but remember that if we don’t have farmers we don’t have food. The other thing that has suffered in our food is the quality. The resulting fruits and vegetables from plants chosen to be planted must be able to endure a week’s worth of transport before it even makes it to the store shelf. At the food market, it has to last a few days to be able to sell to consumers. Then we get it in our refrigerators and it may last another week before we get around to using it in a meal. That’s a lot to ask of a tomato or a cucumber. Plant selections and diversity have dwindled to those few who pass this test. There are other methods to aid in the transport of our food; one of the most talked about one is the green tomatoes story. Tomatoes ripen on the vine with naturally occurring ethylene gas. They can be picked green and have the harmless gas, ethylene, applied during transport to artificially ripen them in transit. It doesn’t have the benefit of the sun which adds other nutrients to the unripened tomato, so we sacrifice taste and nutrition.
Finally, for every day that a fruit or vegetable is off it’s life giving plant, respiration causes the natural sugars to turn into starch. The vitamins and nutrients begin to degrade. The shorter the time between when a fruit or vegetable is picked to when it is eaten, the better the taste and the higher the nutrition.
I enjoy having produce that cannot be effectively grown in our area just like anyone else – I would choose fresh limes and lemons over something coming in a plastic container any day. And I love pineapples, avocados, and oranges – all of which have to be trucked in from elsewhere. I also will eat fruits and vegetables in seasons that it cannot be grown in our area, but I will also try to store up food from our local farmers when it is available and freeze and can it. When fruits and vegetables are available locally, I will buy from local farms that I find produce using sustainable methods and using no or little harmful chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides. I don’t want to take jobs away from people who are trucking, or people who are brokers buying and selling produce, or the people who work in the markets selling the produce, or people in developing countries trying to make a living. I just want good quality and nutritious produce and I want it to be produced in the most sustainable way possible. I also would like to see the farmers who are actually producing our food see a benefit from this process. I have a choice when I buy my food, like everybody else, and I choose the farmers’ markets because it is fresh, sustainably grown, uses less energy to produce, supports the farmer growing the most nutritious possible produce, and helps the local economy.
And that’s why I will do all I can to help grow our farmers’ market in Melrose.