Alex Uding

The Path of Produce from the Farm to the Store

Think about your favorite grocery store and mentally go through the aisles. Appreciate the products that are there. Now, as you pick your favorite fresh fruit or vegetable, imagine the story of where it was grown, how it was picked, and the events that took place to get it in the store.

I would not have been able to imagine this process if I was asked a few years ago. I was blind to the steps and unaware of the complexity of our food system. Today, we will discuss more generally how a piece of produce might end up at your store.

We have a few key players in this story:

1)   The farmer
2)   Post-harvest methods
3)   A regional distribution center
4)   The retailer (aka, the store or restaurant)
5)   Finally, you – the consumer.

Meet the farmers and the decisions they must make:

  • A product is chosen. The farmer must decide what will be grown and the variety of the product they are growing. Choosing the plant variety can depend on the plant’s tolerance to the farmer’s growing environment, temperature, time of year, location, resistance to disease, and type of production.
  • Planting methods are executed. Plants have different seeding, transplanting, and growth cycle needs. Farmers must decide how they will address those needs based on cost, their production capabilities, technology of the farmers, and the intent to optimize the environment of the crops. They must determine the right time of year, soil conditions, plant spacing, irrigation methods, fertilization, and pesticide use.
  •  Harvesting. When the produce is ready to harvest, farmers must choose appropriate harvesting containers, equipment, and transportation to be efficient and clean.1 In most scenarios, the harvest containers get transported to a packinghouse where they will be prepared for the next step.

Post-harvest methods:

  • After harvest, time is of the essence to make sure the produce is as fresh as possible. At the packinghouse or shed, the environment must be well controlled, and there are deliberate techniques to transfer the product into the facility.
  •  It is common for post-harvest facilities to prepare the produce to be transported to a processing center where it is inspected, cleaned, and assessed for quality. Often, preservation is emphasized through cooling measures, slow respiration, water-loss techniques, and/or the use of salt, sugar, or other chemical preservatives.2
  •  Farmers need to ensure the crop they are shipping is optimal maturity by the time it hits the store, not necessarily when it is picked. Destination location plays a role in the timing of the harvest. In addition, size, color, firmness/tenderness, days of bloom, heat accumulation, and other considerations must be taken in account to provide a product consumers would want to buy. 2
  •  Information is gathered on all the produce coming into to identify the grower/supplier, the date of the harvest, the field, the shift, and production records to be able to trace products when transported. 3
  •  Packaging must protect the items, be appealing for sale, and promote a clean environment to reduce contamination risk. When packaging, the products are put in bags, crates, baskets, cartons, bulk bins, hampers, and/or palletized containers. It is has been reported there are more than 1,500 different types of packing for produce in the United States.4
  •  Transportation is the next stop of the produce story. The products must be transported s through non-damaging and non-contaminating means. The transportation vehicle must be free of debris, maintain proper humidity and temperature levels, and loaded in a way that minimizes storage time and maximizes accessibility to get fresh-cut produce to the shelf as quickly as they can.5

Regional distribution centers:

  • Distribution centers are locations where food is collected and redistributed to retailers, wholesalers, or directly to the consumers.These centers face the challenge of ensuring the food-safety regulations continue to be followed. Centers report organic regulation, ensure Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points compliance (HACCP is a systematic preventive approach required by the FDA and USDA to promote food safety in the production processes), and log food defense and vulnerability. Employee training and awareness programs are necessary to help keep the products up to industry standards.6
  •  The food industry requires consistent deliveries of the right products, in the right quantity, in the right condition, to the right place, at the right time, and for the right cost.7 With the regional distribution of food from all over the country and world, this can be a great challenge for ordering, processing, and transporting foods. Distribution centers means food products that are seasonal can  still be present in the store. 7
  • When food leaves the distribution centers, it most often travels to retailers or wholesalers. It has been reported that meals in the United States travel about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate. 8

Our journey is almost complete! Meet the retailers and the hero of our story – you, the consumer!

  • Once delivered, it is the job of the retailer to inspect, display, and store produce to maintain shelf-life, while still promoting healthy standards. Stores order and reorder inventory to ensure they have the produce consumers want in stock and looking fresh.
  • In-season produce  may be purchased more locally, therefore bypassing distribution centers. This can be why you might see sales or signs for locally grown products in the summer, because they are more available to the retailer.
  • Finally, the journey ends with you making your food purchase!

This is a very watered-down synopsis of the general path a food item might take to get to your plate. There are many players and stops involved to take produce from farm to table. This is why you may be hearing an increasing demand from consumers to be able to track and follow the supply chain of their food. With so many twists and turns, as a consumer it can be difficult to know the true quality of an item.

Efforts are being made to improve the efficiency and standards for food traceability in hopes of reducing contamination risks, promoting local sourcing and better farming practices, improving environmental awareness, reducing packing and transportation consequences, and more. The journey of food can be long, but being educated on the process can help direct our food choices – and may help to create the demand for a more direct and more efficient system.

  1. http://www.greentechchallenge.eu/single-post/2017/07/04/From-Farm-to-Table-%E2%80%93-The-Food-Shipping-Process
  2. https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/vegetable/guides/texas-vegetable-growers-handbook/chapter-x-harvesting-handling/
  3. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/ProducePlantProducts/ucm064458.htm#ch4
  4. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/packaging-requirements-for-fresh-fruits-and-vegetables
  1. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/ProducePlantProducts/ucm064458.htm
  2. https://www.aibonline.org/Food-First-Blog/PostId/25/risky-business-food-safety-in-distribution-centers
  3. Aghazadeh, S.M. Improving Logistics Operations Across the Food Industry Supply Chain. Int. J. Contemp. Hosp. Manag. 2004, 16, 263–268.
  4. https://cuesa.org/learn/how-far-does-your-food-travel-get-your-plate


About the Author:

Alex Uding, PT, DPT, PN1

Co-host of Know Better Live Best, Writer, Creator of Advancing Her (https://www.advancingher.com/)

Alex works with healthy and injured individuals alike, across the lifespan. She has special interest in orthopedic and sports rehab, women’s health, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and development of the female athlete. She is passionate about bridging the gap between rehabilitation and optimizing performance to promote a lifestyle of health and wellness through compassionate, person-centered care.

Alex loves to run, hike, and travel – visiting every national park is on the bucket list! She enjoys exploring new places, culture, food, music, and people. She is Chicago born and raised, but has lived all over the country. She loves hearing people’s story and what makes them tick.

Alex has a Doctorate of Physical Therapy, is Precision Nutrition Certified, and is a Strength and Performance Coach. She works as a Physical Therapist and Performance Coach at Momentum Physical Therapy in Milford, MA.

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According to WebMD… I Have What?!

Think of a time you haven’t felt well. Let’s say you have a sore throat, dizziness, swollen glands, and feel achy all over. You are miserable and you just want to start feeling better. Unsure of what may be going on, you go to your phone and you type in your symptoms, yielding 66 results that say you have anything from the common cold, to strep, to cancer.

How do you use all the information that is provided? How do you narrow it down?

It isn’t easy. Navigating the world of health and wellness can be very challenging because it is chock-full of information. We are very fortunate to live in a time when information is more easily available than it used to be and advancements in medicine have given us a better understanding health and wellness – but with a tradeoff. Often it feels like it’s left up to us to make sense of it all.

Our ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions is known as health literacy. 1 However, with all of this information readily available, only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy, meaning the majority of people may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease.2

Why does this matter?

Health Literacy is critical to managing your health and living your best life! Our proficiency and understanding of it can:

  • Influence the way we work through the healthcare system and the services we seek out
  • Help us understand our own bodies, self-care, and preventative behaviors/choices
  • Improve our communication with health care professionals and providers
  • Assist with decision making and understanding of information
  • Help us seek out care in more timely and efficient manners

When you have a foundation of health literacy, it becomes much easier to understand what questions to ask about your health, who to talk to, and when to seek help. Having health literacy can literally save your life. But the road to understanding health is full of many twists, turns, and trap doors.

How can we improve our health literacy?

Determine what is important to you. Reflecting on what our priorities are can help direct how we seek out information and care. The following questions can be used as a guide:

  • What are the areas of health and wellness you feel are critical?
  • What are the important things you want to discuss or learn about?
  • What areas do you feel less confident in or want more information on?
  • What are your biggest concerns?
  • What are the barriers you are experiencing in your health wellness?

Answering questions like these can help you form a better understanding of your current knowledge base, encourage you to be a self-advocate for your health, and reveal gaps to fill in your health literacy.

Form a team. Find health and wellness providers who make you feel comfortable, communicate well, and provide you with the information you have reflected on above. There are a wide variety of experts in the various avenues of health and wellness – choose a team that supports your different areas of health. Some things to look for in a good health and wellness provider are:

  • Active listening
  • Asking follow-up questions to what you say
  • Providing perspectives in regards to their expertise
  • Guiding you to resources
  • Being an advocate for you and your health

Sometimes you may not find your team on the first try, and that’s fine! Finding a provider you trust and can understand will improve your health. One bad experience with a type of professional does not mean that should be a reflection on the whole field. Take the extra effort to find who you work well with and don’t be afraid to ask others to help you find your team – you are worth it!

Stand Up For Yourself! Health care should be treated as a partnership – the health care professional is the consultant, but you carry out the plan. You have to communicate to direct the health professional’s understanding and awareness to your needs and life. Make your care an active discussion, express fears and concerns, and always know you can speak up. Good health care professionals (the kind you want on your team) will respect you and listen. Take advantage of your time with them. In addition, if an interpreter is needed, please request one. Tell the medical provider prior to your first visit that an interpreter is needed and one will be provided. At the end of the day, you are the number one advocate for your health.

Repeat information back and ask questions. The information you get at your appointment is going to help you make informed decisions about what is best for you at the time. Having someone with you to take notes (or taking notes/recording the conversation yourself) can help you collect and recall information. If something is unclear, repeat back to the provider what your interpretation of their words are. This will help you both get on the same page. Prior to an appointment or between appointments, write your questions down. This can help you to recall important points you want more information on and can help make the visit more efficient. Sharing your questions with loved ones and other health professionals can help direct the visit, especially when decisions are complex. If there are lingering questions after, don’t be afraid to call your provider’s office. It is okay to ask for answers.

Develop a network of resources. A lot of good information is out there, but sometimes we need direction in knowing what we can trust. Ask your trusted professionals about resources they use. Every health professional has their own network, sites, journals, and fellow professionals they know and trust. Let professionals help you build your own network. Additionally health professionals often have colleagues nation- and world-wide – you never know who they can get you in touch with.

To get started on developing your network, here is a list  of health resources and professionals in performance, nutrition, mental health, and wellness.

Assess Your Information Sources

Remember, online information is meant to complement your knowledge – itt should not be the sole resource in your health decision making. But when you do seek knowledge online, keep in mind some of these considerations to help you to assess the accuracy of material you are reading:

  • Who wrote or created the site? What is their background? Are they credible?
  • What is the site promoting? Does it make sense? Does it seem possible?
  • How up to date is the research and resources? Are there citations?
  • Where is the information they are promoting coming from?
  • Is there a financial gain that can be made from the site? Are they trying to promote their product?
  • Can you communicate with the site? Are other professionals interacting with the site?

Inaccurate, conflicting, and confusing information can be a big barrier in health literacy. There is a lot of wonderful information available, but it is also important to know when more information may be needed.  Here is a resource that can help you better assess what you are reading and whether it is missing any essential information.

At Know Better, Live Best we want to help you live your best life. Navigating health literacy can be challenging, which is why we want to be part of the solution. We are dedicated to being a resource for you.If there a topic or question you want more information on, please reach out to us. We will do our best to find an answer or direct you to someone who can help. Together we can start creating a culture that is proficient in health literacy. Let’s make a culture of wellness the norm.

  1.   https://nnlm.gov/initiatives/topics/health-literacy
  2.   https://health.gov/communication/literacy/quickguide/factsbasic.htm#six
  3.   https://www.advancingher.com/resources
  4.   https://nccih.nih.gov/health/know-science/facts-health-news-stories
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Food Transparency – A Call to Action and What It Means to You

The good news – Americans are becoming more interested and aware of the food we consume and why informed nutrition is important.

The bad news – The road to informed nutrition and food literacy is confusing and intricate. 
There is a lot of information on the type of foods we should eat, the quantities we should consume, the next big trending diet, eating to manage illnesses, and how to eat well to live a long and disease-free life. These topics are important, complex, and often heavily debated. However, this article isn’t about that.

Today, we are going to focus on the basics: food and where it comes from. At Know Better Live Best, we could spend hours talking about just this (and often do!) and we will dive deeper into some of these issues in the future. But for now, let’s keep it at the basics.

What is food transparency?

Access to knowledge about where food comes from – this includes origins of the seeds, the farm the food came from and its procedures,, environmental conditions, worker conditions, sustainability practices, packaging, production, and sale. Like every system, each step along the way is important and influences the next. Food often is not simply brought from the farm to the store where you purchase it. Our food system is incredibly intricate and complex, and much can get lost along the way – making true food transparency an extraordinarily difficult feat.

According to the 2016 Label Insight Food Revolution Study, the majority of people want transparency in the food system. There is a growing demand to improve our system and better the health of our society. Of the 1,500 consumers surveyed in the study mentioned above, 94% of respondents reported it is important to them that the brands and manufacturers they buy from are transparent about what is in their food and how it is made. The good news is, consumer demand for transparency is sparking a change in the food industry. And with new technology, a transparent food supply chain is within our reach.

Which brings us to our excitement about our partnership Bytable Foods.

Bytable Foods uses blockchain and IoT technologies to trace where food is coming from. They’re tracking how food was grown, processed, distributed, and how it ended up at your local store. And they’re making this information available to consumers like you – by scanning a QR code on the food package, you can see the entire journey of your food from the farm to your table, certification information, packaging dates, and the practices of the producer.

We believe that food transparency built on trustworthy information is the key to transforming our food system into one that works better for everyone in it. And we are so excited to see Bytable Foods making it happen.

Food transparency data can be used for many other things that benefit our society overall. By building traceability and transparency into our food system food outbreaks can be contained sooner,eating to prevent and manage illness can become easier, choosing what we use to fuel performance can improve,labels will be easier to read, and nutrition quality will be held to a higher standard.

Because when consumers are given the information and power to choose where their money goes, they can give back to their local communities, support companies that align with their values, and vote with their dollars and voices for a better and more sustainable food system.

“Food transparency,” is a buzzword these days – but we hope this article has helped you understand the hype. When our food system supports transparency, you can have a say in the food you consume and the companies you support. Bytable Foods and Know Better, Live Best are here to help you live your best life. We will continue to dive into the world of nutrition and food industry as we go, but we first wanted to introduce you to our passion.

What is your passion? How can living well help you achieve it? And how can we help?

1.https://www.labelinsight.com/hubfs/Label_Insight-Food-Revolution-Study.pdf?hsCtaTracking=fc71fa82-7e0b-4b05-b2b4-de1ade992d33%7C95a8befc-d0cc-4b8b-8102-529d937eb427

2. https://www.bytablefoods.com/

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