Many consumers shop for local produce and fresh ingredients. We know that buying items sourced from local farms can help the environment and encourage local economic success.
But in many locations, grocery stores are the most accessible way to get affordable food for our households. How exactly does this food get to the store or restaurant?
The process is not as straightforward as you may think. Learn more about the food-to-table process, where food waste occurs —and what you can do to advocate for more sustainable changes!
Skip to What You Need
- 1 Following Your Food’s Journey to Your Table
- 2 What We Can Do to Solve Food Waste in the Farm to Table Process
- 3 Improving the Farm to Table Process
- 4 References and Useful Resources
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Following Your Food’s Journey to Your Table
The farm to table process is the life cycle that all food products must go through before they are eaten. Delivering food from the farm to your table consists of the following five steps:
1. Production of Goods
The first step of the farm to table process is for farmers to grow the produce and raise the livestock. During this stage, food is vulnerable to contamination. In fact, 20 billion pounds of produce is wasted on farms each year. Food can be thrown away if exposed to pests, disease, or harsh weather.
Market conditions can also influence food production. For example, suppose food prices are lower than the cost of transportation and labor. In that case, some farmers may not harvest certain crops.
Another reason food is wasted is due to health concerns. For example, when milking a cow, sometimes bacteria can get into the milk. Plus, improper refrigeration or handling of raw meat can lead to food waste.
This is why it is so important for farmers and manufacturers to follow the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.
Reducing food waste during this stage involves advanced planning from producers. Farmers should research market trends and find a buyer ahead of time.
They can use this research to determine which crops are best for the local weather conditions. Then, ensure all employees understand the harvesting process. Cleaning crops before storing them also reduces the risk of contamination.
2. Processing Agricultural Products
During this stage of the farm to table process, the harvested crops are turned into consumable products. This may consist of washing and sorting fruits or turning milk into cheese.
However, if not appropriately washed, food can become contaminated — then, if not properly stored, pathogens can grow.
This is why it is important to enforce sanitation guidelines, even if it sometimes contributes to wasted food. However, not everything is a result of health guidelines.
Overproduction, product damage, and technical issues can also cause waste in manufacturing plants.
Food can even be wasted when trimming off excess portions, such as skin or fat. Instead of throwing scraps away, some of them can be recycled and used for animal feed. Another way to limit food waste is by creating clear and informative labels.
Taking advantage of technology can be key to keeping food out of landfills. Processing facilities that use resource planning software are better able to analyze shelf-life and avoid overstocking.
3. Transporting Food to a Regional Distribution Center
Once the food is processed, it’s taken to a distribution center, which could be quite far from its source of origin. Most farmers don’t directly take the produce to stores or restaurants.
During the transportation process, food is susceptible to spoilage. Improper refrigeration of items can increase this risk.
One solution is adding smart sensors and devices into cold chain transport containers. These can help monitor key elements like location and temperature and prevent excess spoilage contributing to industrial food waste.
Also, the transportation of items requires careful coordination. Advanced technology can make the process more efficient. Electronic data interchanged digitally exchanges business information to make tracking easier and quicker.
Another critical issue is that many perishable items are thrown away if a buyer can’t be found in time. This is why establishing connections with retail buyers can help reduce food waste, too, even at the end stage of distribution.
4. Shipping Produce to Local Retail Stores
At this stage of the farm to table process, you, the consumer, can purchase food from local grocery stores and restaurants. Many stores compete to convince shoppers they have the most valuable produce.
This competition can benefit you in the form of deals, variety, and lower prices — sounds great, right?
However, if this food isn’t sold in time, it can end up being discarded. Much of the excess food at this stage comes from perishable products, such as baked goods, meat, or seafood. In the quest for mass appeal, we lose a lot of food that just never gets bought.
Sometimes consumer habits can contribute to food waste. Many shoppers make decisions based on the appearance of certain foods.
They may avoid produce that is discolored or asymmetrical, even if it’s perfectly suitable for eating and cooking. That means retailers are incentivized to display only the most beautiful products for purchase.
However, employers also play a role through oversized packaging and expired sell-by dates. To help prevent food waste, some stores have simplified their expiration dates. For example, Walmart divided labels into two categories: “Use By” and “Best If Used By.”
Many retailers are also experimenting with selling less appealing-looking produce at discounted prices.
5. Food Ending Up on Your Plate
The final step is the dinner table. As we know, individuals can contribute to food waste even at home.
Not correctly reading food labels or overbuying creates an increase in unwanted food. Plus, many people may not plan out their meals before heading to the store.
This can lead to unnecessary purchases and leftovers ending up in the trash. Have you ever experienced buying a bag of lettuce for a meal only to realize it wilted before you could enjoy the whole thing? Welcome to the club.
With so many systemic issues in the food industry, our own actions can feel small. In reality, though, there’s a lot of work to be done here.
Studies indicate that 61% of all food waste occurs post-purchase. There’s a lot we can do right at home to minimize our contributions to food waste.
Try planning out your meals for the week and creating a list of ingredients you will need. Consider checking your fridge first to see what you already have. And shop small where possible — farmer’s markets might provide lettuce in more manageable bunches for your dinner plans.
If you would like to learn more about the farm to table process and five steps set out above, as well as some of the history behind how we farm and the farm to table cycle, check out this great video by National Geographic:
What We Can Do to Solve Food Waste in the Farm to Table Process
Besides doing your best at home, you may ask, what can you do to encourage systemic change in the way we process and distribute food?
Even if you don’t run a farm, manage an industrial processing facility or own a grocery store, your voice can raise awareness and make a difference.
Consumers’ wallets are powerful forces in the commercial food industry, too, so we’ll also suggest places where your financial contributions can push the needle on sustainable food production.
1. Support Agricultural Nonprofits
There are organizations around the U.S. that push for more sustainable agriculture and food production. Lending them your support can help them fund their mission and contribute to more effective action in a massive industry.
Where should you start? Look for reputable nonprofit organizations with clear goals and a measurable impact. Here are a few suggestions:
- National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC): NSAC focuses on supporting family farmers and the environment by pushing for new government policies. On top of donating, you can also use their recommendations for contacting your representatives and learning about specific bills that can make a difference in local agriculture.
- Food Recovery Network: This organization is led by college students and aims to reduce food waste from university dining halls. They’ve recovered and donated over 9 million pounds of food since their founding in 2011. You can assist by donating, opening a chapter at your college (if you’re a student), or reaching out to local retailers about becoming Food Recovery Verified.
- Feeding America: Feeding America does lots of work connecting people to food and food assistance programs. Their focus on food rescue aims to reduce waste by connecting retailers with food banks — for example, their MealConnect app allows restaurants and grocery stores to alert local food banks when there is good food to pick up. Help Feeding America with donations and/or volunteering.
You should also check out opportunities to assist local food banks and food-focused nonprofits in your community.
Grassroots organizations can make a massive impact on your community, and often need reliable local support to keep running.
2. Get in Touch with Representatives
Another way to help is at the policy level, whether you want to see changes happen in your community or on a larger scale. Federal and state representatives have staffed offices for a reason — reach out by phone, email or appointment to get started.
Are you intimidated by reaching out to a representative? Start locally. Starting a conversation about food waste and food insecurity with a city council member, for example, can help you learn what your local government is already doing and what areas they might be able to grow in.
Maybe you can even encourage them to connect with a nonprofit organization and use their networks to help local grocers and restaurateurs find alternatives to throwing out food.
Improving the Farm to Table Process
The food you consume every day doesn’t magically appear on your table. Instead, it follows a process where food is produced, processed, and transported. Along the way, tons of food are wasted.
Fortunately, the potential for food waste can be reduced, through technology, following administrative guidelines, and thoughtful planning.
If we know what to advocate for, we can set higher expectations for efficiency through every step of the process.
About the Author:
Evelyn Long is the editor-in-chief of Renovated, where she covers sustainable housing and improved building techniques for readers interested in a greener future.
References and Useful Resources
The Guardian: From Field to Fork: The Six Stages of Wasting Food
Frequently Asked Questions
How far does food travel to get onto your plate?
Obviously, this varies depending on where you live and where you shop. Research from Michigan State University in 2003 found that food travels an average of 1,494 miles to get to a market. For context, that’s roughly the distance between Nebraska and California! Lots of farmed food needs to make it at least halfway across the country to feed people. You can learn more about the food transportation process in section 3 of this article.
What food is wasted the most in the farm-to-table process?
U.N. data indicates that potatoes, beets, radishes, and carrots are the most wasted food in the world, coming in at 46.2% of total food waste. This is partially due to consumers’ unwillingness to buy “ugly” or bruised potatoes. However, it can also be a more complex concern, as we saw in 2020 as millions of potatoes in the U.S. alone went to waste in the face of pandemic supply chain issues. Storage and transportation can contribute to a lot of food waste if supply chains aren’t working properly.
How can I help make food production more sustainable?
On an individual level, shop directly from farmers or local markets where possible and plan your meals to incorporate meat and produce before it goes bad. On a systemic level, see “What We Can Do to Solve Food Waste” above. We share some nonprofit organizations to support and advise for engaging with local representatives about this issue.