One evening in late December, my daughter Molly and I were enjoying her favorite meal. The wonderful and tasty dish called calabacitas requires fresh green summer squash, fresh yellow crookneck squash, fresh yellow onions, fresh jalapenos, fresh roasted corn and as a topping, fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Earlier that day, as we were slicing and chopping, and the smells of the greens and reds and yellows brought back memories of New Mexico and her mother’s cooking, my daughter looked up and said, “Where do you get fresh squash and tomatoes in December? Weird, huh?”
I had to stop and think a minute. She is right: It is weird if you think about it. How is it that we are able to get fresh summer vegetables in the middle of winter in the Hudson Valley? If we follow the seasons of the year, squash and onions – and really, all produce – should not be available to us until at least June, unless you are using winter squash and onions from storage. (Winter squash is squash you pick in fall, like a Hubbard or acorn, and then cure or store for use in winter. It has a thicker skin and a completely different taste from summer zucchini.)
Taking my contact list in hand and using my experience in food supplies, along with my (perhaps now) useful degree in Agriculture, I set out to find out just how this fresh produce reached our table in December. Where did it come from?
Squash is a fairly fragile vegetable; hence the name. Like all vegetables, it is composed of water, sugar and fibers inside a thin and delicate skin. There are more than 15 varieties. For optimal nutritional value and taste, most are eaten during the season in which they are grown, because, once picked, squash last about 14 days under the best of conditions. After that, they begin to lose their water content, dry out, get moldy and end up as trash or compost. And like all produce, squashes begin to lose their flavor and nutritional value the moment that they are picked. You might say they depreciate. So, squash must get to the grocery-store shelf quickly – right?
I asked a local grocer how often he received produce deliveries. I was told three to four times per week: about every other day. A look at the boxes in back told me that the produce came from either Mexico or Arizona. I remembered that the produce-growing regions in January are primarily in Florida and Arizona. As the days lengthen, growing regions slowly advance north. An old friend of mine, still in the produce business, describes the actual movement of growing regions as more like this:
January to March: Florida, south Texas, Arizona, Mexico
March to June: Florida, California, then up the coast from Georgia to eventually New Jersey
June to August: everywhere except south Texas, Arizona, southern New Mexico
September to October: southward retreat to Florida, California
November to December: California, Arizona, south Texas, Mexico
Phoenix, Arizona is 2,144 miles as the crow flies. If the little green squash came from Arizona, as the list above verifies its December location, it had been on the road 36 hours at a minimum.
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.