Industrial Food Complex


Editor’s Note: As you may remember, ES contributor forkitude has given up the corporate life to take the plunge into culinary school.

Part of culinary education is learning how to purchase food. Therefore, I found myself in a food Home Depot during my walking tour of the 245,000-square-foot Sysco warehouse in Lincoln, NE.

When did food distribution become so mechanized and industrial?

Sysco was started in the 1970s by several producers in order to distribute different food stuffs to buyers on the same truck. This idea has evolved into a food machine. And it felt like a machine.

We walked past boxes labeled “fresh cut vegetables.” Maybe the English language needs a new definition for the word fresh. “Still consumable” perhaps?


In a presentation after the tour, someone brought up local and organic issues. As it was explained, they “try” to buy local, but unfortunately this is a litigious society. Sysco requires their producers to carry at least $4 million in insurance (perhaps not feasible for a small farmer). So, Sysco doesn’t have to worry monetarily if there is an E.Coli outbreak in the spinach they are distributing because they will be able to refund their customers with the insurance proceeds. In the end, it’s about money. Everyone’s ass is covered. Except the people eating this terrible food.

Oh and as for organic food: there is little demand for organic produc’s “Here in the Midwest…that’s mostly on the coasts.”

In speaking to a group of culinary students (re: future chefs and restaurant owners), the argument was made that if your restaurant door swings open twenty times a day, that is a bad thing. Picture a bad infomercial at 3 am: an angry old lady fussing with 3,000 tangled wire hangers in her closet until she finally discovers the Hanger Cascader and life is immediately wonderful. One truck, one delivery, one invoice, all of your food.


My question to the executive was related to the consolidation and monopolization of the meat industry since it was mentioned that “beef is plentiful here and it’s pretty good.” I wanted to know if customers in recent years have been asking about where their meat is coming from and if they are concerned with quality.

Answer? When you have fewer producers, you drive down sales. Economies of scale. No, they don’t hear anything from customers about concerns in the meat industry.

And for lunch? Pork chops served with a special “jumbo sized” asparagus developed by Sysco to be just as tender as thinner asparagus. Thanks, but no thanks.

When did we become so disconnected from our food?


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  • gansie October 12, 2010  

    finally, a reason to reference hanger cascader on ES!

    and as much as i like to think the “coasts” are superior, i highly doubt that the entire middle of the country doesnt care where there food comes from. the monopolization of food in this country is such a scary problem.

    what were your teachers saying? i was hoping they’d bring you to Sysco to scare you, not to tell you to use their food.

  • Borracho October 12, 2010  

    I’d really love to hear from others in the Midwest about the dismissal that only the coasts are concerned with organic food. It almost sounds like it was a dismissal of eating organic as being snobby. I’m with gansie in finding it hard to believe that a vast part of the country just doesn’t care where there food comes from, especially considering the traditional importance of agriculture in the midwest.

  • forkitude October 13, 2010  

    Gansie – I was hoping that they would have been somewhat objective in their endorsement of Sysco for our future food purchases and perhaps inspire a little critical thinking on the subject. But it felt like a commercial. Since they are large donors of the culinary school…this makes sense. Borracho – food in the middle of the country is pretty bad even though agriculture is an important part of the economy. Most of what is farmed here is corn (most of it for energy, corn derivatives, and cattle feed) and corn-fed beef. For example, it is not as easy (or that affordable) to find organic food here in contrast to Colorado where I lived for the past 11 years. Some grocery stores have a special “health market” as they call it–segregated from the rest of the store. Yes, it did seem like a comparison of “organic” to “snobery”. It all comes down to money. And unfortunately, the mainstream market hasn’t gotten behind it yet.

  • Liza's sis October 13, 2010  

    Regarding organic/local food in the midwest — I live in Oklahoma, and find there are an abundance of local/organic options. Granted, I care enough to look… but it isn’t hard at all! All year round, there are – within three miles of where I live – a Whole Foods (which is my least favorite option), a store called Harvard Meats, which sources humane and local meats, Natural Farms, which likewise sells only humane and local meats and also carries local produce, and a store called Akins, which specializes in organic products. During the summer, fruit and veggie stands from local farmers pop up everywhere. This is true all over the state. The one near my house is a summer project for a group of guys — they contract with various farmers and go around, bringing in their produce to sell under a tent. Four days of the week from April through October, there’s a Farmer’s Market near me – three of the four I can walk to. During “off season,” there’s a website where I can place my order for the meat and dairy producers from the Farmer’s Market, and they bring it in every other Saturday. If I mess up and don’t order, I can get my milk and dairy products at a store called Braumn’s Dairy, which is everywhere in Oklahoma and which sells really good local milk and meat that isn’t (in my opinion) as good for all concerned (me, the people I feed, the animals, or the environment) as what I buy from Farmer’s Markets but it’s close. And a hell of a lot better than grocery store alternatives (including the bullshit that passes for “humane” or ‘cage-free” at whole foods, but that’s a different rant). All over the state, there are Farmer’s Markets — I’ve been to some in small towns that are awesome. There’s a web service called Oklahoma Co-Op that brings farmers and producers together to sell to the public across the state during the entire year.

    So, the short answer is — it takes a little planning, but really it’s easy if you care enough to do it. During market season, nearly all what I purchase is local. I lived on the East Coast for awhile, and didn’t think my options were anywhere near as good as they are now for local food.

    There are many restaurants that work with local producers – again, you just have to care to ask or to look for it. There’s an organic/local mexican restaurant that gets all its chicken from a farmer who slaughters on site so that the chickens aren’t transported… and these are really humanely raised – truly cage free, not the “cage free” kind that are thousands in a shed with an open door. There’s a great lunch place that is almost all local food. A number of upscale places that use local foods too.

    Bottom line – there are a lot of people who care passionately about local and organic food, and care about how what they consume is produced. There is a market for it. Now, I’m not saying we’re a majority or even close to it — but it’s a vocal minority that is growing. The best way for it to grow is for people to TRY the local food – it tastes so much better. And people here are trying — trying really hard.

    To be dismissed as “non-coastal” is total bullshit. I live in a place where I can eat plentifully from what is grown within 100 miles of me nearly yearround, and that’s true for a lot of us here in the middle. Frankly, before the Wal-Marts of the world starting taking over our small towns, I’m willing to bet that most people here were a lot better about eating locally and supporting farmers than the masses on the coasts.

    – Liza’s Sis (who knows people who are farmers, and who kinda wants to be one too)

  • forkitude October 13, 2010  

    I completely agree that there are people in the Midwest, like you, who care enough to know and eat good food. It’s awesome that you have so many good choices. I work at a restaurant that strives to work with local producers and that isn’t always the easiest choice, but the food is so much better. Similar to the Mexican restaurant you mentioned, for example, we purchase true cage free organic chickens for our dishes….not just chickens that have a 4-inch slot to look out the window. I think the kicker is “it’s easy if you care enough to do it”. Most people don’t want to spend the money or time. There are farmer’s markets here, one Whole Foods, and of course local farms that grow plentiful gardens of vegetables. There is a growing market for it. And if people like you and I keep talking about it, people will start listening. It’s not just “trendy”, it’s how things should be.

    I suppose my point of view is also contrasted with living in France where food is a lot different. I absolutely hate some of the disgusting packaged, preserved shit that passes as food here.

    And yes, going back to the money game, a lot of marketing goes into making the consumer think they are purchasing a better as you point out the “cage-free”, “all-natural”, and “humane” products. You have to look beyond the label.

    Thanks for your comment. I give you props for caring.

  • Liza October 16, 2010  

    Go Sis!! Yeah I think you eat WAY more locally and organically than I do and find it way easier/cheaper to do than me on the coast. Plus, you did live in Boston, NYC, and DC for 8 or 9 years and I never heard anything about the local food there! Anyone who thinks eating organic and local is a coastal thing is a complete idiot. This is just a hypothesis, but perhaps people in the Midwest maybe don’t make as big of a deal about the fact that they are eating locally/organically… I could be wrong but just a thought.

  • Liza October 16, 2010  

    And another thing – I think it takes some planning and effort in DC as well – I don’t that is a midwest thing.

  • Pingback: Burns My Bacon: Locawashing | Endless Simmer November 10, 2010  
  • Borracho January 21, 2011  

    I do not know how I missed it all year but recently came across the blog: Fed up with Lunch. I don’t often recommend cheating on ES but it is an interesting, yet scary, look at what was served every day for lunch in 2010 at a Midwestern elementary school. It immediately made me think of this post in a creepy X-Files conspiracy kind of way.

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