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A well-traveled breakfast

Steve Henn Nov 26, 2009

A well-traveled breakfast

Steve Henn Nov 26, 2009

[This story originally aired on the Marketplace Morning Report, Nov. 11, 2007.]


Tess Vigeland: American consumption tripled in just the last 20 years. And although the recession put the brakes on the buying binge, we still spend a lot of money on everything from cars to toys to food.
And with all the food choices available — from organics to fast food — you gotta wonder how our demand is supplied. Marketplace’s Steve Henn considers some hidden costs of our collective gluttony.

Steve Henn: My wife and I splurge on organic food for our kids. Our three girls drink six gallons of milk a week. We have fresh fruit on our kitchen counter every day of the year.

Lila Henn: Da da…

Steve Henn: Would you like a banana?

And every morning, there’s a feeding frenzy in my kitchen.

Faye Henn: Mom, I need a spoon!

This insanity usually starts before my first cup coffee.

Ella Henn: I’m eating cereal right now.

It often ends with me scraping soggy bits of organic mango cereal out from underneath the kitchen table.

But this morning was a bit different: I decided to track down every bite my kids ate, and figure out where it came from. Within a week, I realized our simple breakfast had traveled the globe — by truck, train, ship and even refrigerated jet plane.

In fact, each bite of that hippy-dippy mango cereal traveled more than 6,000 miles before it ended up on my kitchen floor. This would have been unimaginable when I was growing up.

Brian Halweil is at the World Watch Institute and the author of Eat Here.

Brian Halweil: In the United States, the average food item is now traveling around 1,500 miles from the farm to our plates. That’s about 20 percent farther than two decades ago.

My kids cereal’s packaged in Oregon. The oats come from Canada, the mango from Mexico and spices shipped in from farms around the world. Our kids yogurt? Cultured in California. Our milk? Bottled in Pennsylvania. But really, what’s wrong with that?

Halweil: Shipping food around the planet gobbles up a tremendous amount of energy.

In 2000, it gobbled up the equivalent of 242 million barrels of oil — that’s more than 10 percent of total U.S. oil production. Food shipping alone spewed more than 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And transportation’s just the half of it: Much of this food has to be refrigerated every step of the way.

At the Port of Philadelphia, in the height of summer, 40-foot refrigerated containers are piled high above my head, each plugged in to a thick electrical cable. They’re full of frozen beef.

It’s 95 degrees on the docks, but inside those containers it’s ice cold. America’s already the largest beef producer in the world, so why all this bother?

Joe Menta’s the spokesman for the Port of Philadelphia:

Joe Menta: And It’s kind of funny — you need the Australian beef, New Zealand beef, cut into the American beef to get the fat content down enough so it can be committed to be sold to fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King.

That’s right: Trimmings from grain-fed American beef are too fatty to meet federal health regulations for hamburgers.

Halweil: It’s a perfect example of this sort of absurd, wasteful food shipping.

Instead of putting American cows on a diet, we ship frozen beef more than 12,000 miles by sea in refrigerated boxes. Every way you measure it, the numbers are staggering. Today, we import 33 percent more food than we did just seven years ago — from coffee to grains and fruit.

Mrs. Henn: Lilee would you like more mango cereal?

Lila Henn: More!

Henns: More!

And the rest of the world is catching up. Global food shipping has increased almost 50 percent this decade. Halweil and others believe this system’s unsustainable.

In Philadelphia, I’m Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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