How do we get fresh produce in the middle of winter?

The puzzle doesn’t end there. This squash didn’t travel directly from Arizona to New Paltz. The company that delivered the squash bought the squash at a terminal market. As the name suggests, a terminal market is a large central market where goods are bought and sold, usually near a large transportation hub. (Though there is a small terminal market in Albany, companies and grocery stores usually purchase out of larger markets during the winter.)

The largest in our area (and the largest terminal market in the world) is at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, which every week handles millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables. More than 40 companies based in Hunt’s Point buy and sell from the produce section alone. That little squash was probably there. If I got the code from the produce box, I could in fact tell you the exact route that little green squash made.

My next step was to call a respectable produce company in the terminal market. As the market operates 24 hours each day, these guys work long and crazy hours. Most of the trucks come in early, and purchases are made and transactions occur before most of us wake up. My contact tells me that the trucks from Arizona are scheduled to arrive at night. Cases of produce usually go out the same or next day. The company that bought the squash takes it to its facility and then repacks it for delivery to the store.

Back in my career, a packinghouse in Arizona gave me a likely chronology from the point of picking to the truck. My cousin who owns a trucking firm out in Albuquerque gave me an idea of timing. When you put them altogether it goes like this:

Picking from the field: one day
Cleaning and packing: one day
Storage while waiting on trucking: one day
Travel: four days
Terminal market: one day
Travel to distributor and repack: one day
Travel to your market and placement on the shelf: one day

So our little friend has had ten days of life from the day that it was picked. If you go back a few paragraphs, you will find that the lifetime of a freshly picked squash is 14 days. By the time your grocer gets the squash on the shelf, it has about five days left before it is dead. Dead means that it has little-to-no nutritional value, it becomes overripe and doesn’t taste very good.

Most produce boxes are stamped with a pack-date code that the consumer never sees. Your grocer tries to juggle dates to get the oldest product out first, so that he or she can reduce what the industry calls “shrink” or loss.

So how do growers, packers, shippers and distributors get all our produce to us in good and gorgeous shape? That is the magic of timing and ripening, which we will leave for another time. One last thing, though: The carbon footprint for taking this particular tasty squash from the Arizona fields to New Paltz in December is unbelievably high. A fully loaded produce truck (44,000 pounds) creates 1,036 kilograms of carbon on its trip from Arizona to New Paltz. One ten-pound box of squash is responsible for .22 kilograms of carbon or .49 pounds of carbon. That’s something to think about.

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