Look at the Long and Winding Path Your Food Takes to Get to Your Plate

This map shows how food flows between counties in the U.S. Each line represents the transportation of food along routes, like roads or railways. Environmental Research Letters

Unless you grow your food in your backyard or get everything from the neighborhood farmers market, most of what you consume has to travel a long way to get to you.

Whether it's fruits and vegetables, grains, meats or processed foods, the trek from farm or production facility to your table can be a long, meandering one.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created a map of all the routes food takes as it moves across the country. The food supply chain study started out as a look at the relationship between food supply and water systems.

"This map came out of our desire to better understand the potential risks water poses to our food supply system, such as drought, floods, and unsustainable water use," Megan Konar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, tells MNN. "There has been a lot of work on agricultural production as an important factor for food security. Food supply chains are also critical to food security and we need to understand them better."

For the map, Konar and her team used eight public databases including the Freight Analysis Framework, which tracks where items are shipped around the U.S., and port trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows the international ports through which goods are traded.

They developed an algorithm that shows major food movement around the country between counties. The results were published in the journal Environmental Research Letters and include the map above.

"We can now see that all Americans are interconnected through the food system," Konar says.

"For example, the map shows how a shipment of corn starts at a farm in Illinois, travels to a grain elevator in Iowa before heading to a feedlot in Kansas, and then travels in animal products being sent to grocery stores in Chicago," Konar writes in an essay for The Conversation. Overall, there are 9.5 million links between counties on the map.

'A complex web of interconnected infrastructure'

apples in a truck
How will these apples make it from the orchard to grocery stores?. littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

Konar and her team found that many of the largest food transport links were in California. At 22 million tons of food, Los Angeles County received more food than any other county. It also shipped out the most at almost 17 million tons. Other California counties ranked high in both receiving and shipping food.

Food moves around the country via "a complex web of interconnected infrastructure" including highways, railroads and waterways. But these methods aren't necessarily efficient.

Konar points out that U.S. infrastructure received a grade of D-plus from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The grades cover everything from roads and transit to drinking water and energy.

"I am confident that this work and research that builds on it will help us to understand how we can most effectively prioritize investment in our nation's critical food supply infrastructure."

Konar hopes both researchers and consumers can learn from the information on the map.

"People love maps! Now that we have a map of our national food supply chain we can visualize and appreciate it," she says.

"I hope the main takeaway for most people is the realization that we are all connected. Urban consumers and rural producers rely on one another and are intermediated by food processors and distributors. Americans are interconnected through our expansive food supply chain, which relies on critical and interconnected civil engineering infrastructure."