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Supply chain case studies help shed light on understudied flows of food

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Posted: March 24, 2014

The circuitous path that most food follows from farm to table is largely unknown to industry outsiders. In fact, this food supply chain is so complex that ten EFSNE researchers — including economists, engineers, and a food-systems expert — are working together to better understand it, so they can identify what can be produced and distributed optimally in the Northeast.
A wholesale produce distribution center in New York, circa 1978. The Distribution Team is shedding new light on the system that moves food from farm to grocer. Image: National Archives and Records Administration.

A wholesale produce distribution center in New York, circa 1978. The Distribution Team is shedding new light on the system that moves food from farm to grocer. Image: National Archives and Records Administration.

It's not that the industry is secretive, said Cornell University Economist Miguel Gómez, who leads the EFSNE Distribution Team. It just hasn't been closely studied in a systematic way, in part because researchers who study the food supply chain don't have the suite of tools available to them that other food-system researchers have.

"If you are interested in government information on production agriculture, you have the Census of Agriculture, with data on what is produced, where it's produced, etc. On the consumption side, you have a lot of agencies collecting data on things like retail prices and how much is consumed," Gómez explained. "But there is no agency collecting data on what happens in between production and consumption."

Members of the Distribution Team are helping to correct this data deficit by developing a number of innovative instruments for conducting systems-level assessments of existing supply chains in the Northeast.

Take, for example, the supply chain case study protocol they devised. The protocol has roots in basic supply chain analysis and engineering, and also borrows from team members' prior work on tracing products from farm to table. The goal of these case studies is to identify and characterize the supply chains for each of the eight foods in the EFSNE project's market basket.

"Imagine that a store gets its apples from two or three wholesalers. Those wholesalers, in turn, buy from businesses that specialize in packing and shipping. And those packer-shippers buy from growers or grower cooperatives," said Gómez. "In our case studies, we want to identify, as much as possible, all the segments that make up this supply chain."

To do this, the team began by conducting detailed interviews with each of the retailers who are participating in the research project. In these interviews, they focus on two of the market basket foods per store, so that all eight foods are represented randomly in the case studies. Just last month, they completed this phase of work, conducting interviews with 15 retailers in all.

"We're asking questions like 'What are the quantities and volumes that wholesale distributors work with? What kinds of relationships exist between store owners and suppliers? What do the contracts between all these businesses look like?'"

In these interviews, retailers provided crucial information about their suppliers, who in turn are being interviewed and are providing information about their suppliers, and so on. As the case studies progress for each of the foods in the market basket, the team will have conducted interviews with dozens of retailers, wholesalers, packer-shippers, and, in some cases, growers and grower cooperatives in the region.

Gómez and his colleagues aren't simply identifying the businesses that make up the supply chains. They're also harvesting a combination of qualitative and quantitative information along the way, said Gómez. "We're asking questions like 'What are the quantities and volumes that wholesale distributors work with? What kinds of relationships exist between store owners and suppliers? What do the contracts between all these businesses look like?'"

The answers to these questions will be quite varied, Gómez explained. "We have different products in different sites and in different types of stores. We will have analysis at the case level, but we also will develop a methodology to compare across sites and across products. For example, we're studying apple supply chains ending in Syracuse, in Southern Delaware and in New York City. So we are going to compare differences between sites in the apple commodity. But we are also going to investigate differences between commodities."

The team has already completed case studies for two of the participating stores, and is beginning to analyze their findings. As the case studies progress, Gómez and his colleagues on the Distribution Team are looking forward to discovering even more ways to collaborate with other researchers in the EFSNE project. "We think that the store inventories being conducted by the Consumption Team will be very important to our work and vice versa," he said. "We hope to include some of the content from the store inventories because it will provide some very important context for the supply chain case studies."