Would you eat a taco that traveled 65,000 miles to reach you? The distance may not seem worth it. But with today’s globalization, much of our food has endured a lengthy journey.
In a rigorous assignment called Tacoshed, students at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco traced the origins of a single taco sold at a street stand in the city’s Mission District. The project revealed that the taco’s components had traveled a total distance of 2.6 times the circumference of the earth — approximately 64,700 miles — to reach customers’ hands.
“The interest I had in doing this was to expose globalization,” says David Fletcher, a landscape architect and the instructor at CCA who organized and supervised the project. “We wanted to figure out what the Tacoshed boundary was.”
The research seminar was a part of the URBANlab, a curriculum component of The California College of the Arts Architecture Program. The project, which was inspired by questions about locavorism and what exactly that term means, asked each student to trace the origins of two taco ingredients. For example, one student tracked sour cream and salt, another tomatoes and onions. Their research involved extensive interviewing and factory tours. According to Fletcher, one student had their Puerto Rican aunt call the adobo seasoning producer to obtain information about where the specific ingredients came from. Only at her undercover request did the company reveal that their powdered garlic came from China — and that trajectory was accounted for in the taco’s overall journey.
“We wanted to laminate all these different trajectories together to figure out what the real taco is,” Fletcher says. Many of the ingredients the taco truck uses are purchased at warehouse facilities like Cosco and Restaurant Depot, particularly nonperishable items like staples and grains.
“A bag of pinto beans might contain 80 beans from Iowa and 530 beans from Nebraska,” Fletcher says. Students found hidden distance in many of the products they investigated. But in some cases, travel may actually be economical.
“One of the things we discussed was that there is less embedded energy in shipping a giant boatload of tomatoes from South America than having a hothouse of tomatoes that sit in an electrified greenhouse for a couple months,” Fletcher says. The total energy expenditure per tomato is less when they are massshipped, in many cases. It may in fact be more ecofriendly to obtain some things from far away if, for example, it’s not the right growing season.
Other exceptions are things like spices. Kyle Mendenhall, executive chef at eco-conscious restaurant The Kitchen, says there are overlooked exceptions to the local trend.
“Black pepper is not available in Colorado, not even in the country,” he says. “With spices and things like that, it’s very difficult [to source locally].”
The adobo seasoning used in the taco truck taco added 15,000 miles to the overall journey. Yet CCA students were surprised at some things that were produced near San Francisco.
“There are some things that did come locally,” Fletcher says. “Salt comes from salt ponds in the Bay, cilantro comes from Oxnard [near Santa Barbara].”
California’s year-round growing season and plant-friendly climate allow for more leeway in obtaining local ingredients. In Boulder, chefs face a bigger challenge.
“It’s kind of hard in the winter to do vegetables locally,” says Brian Behnam, owner of the upscale deli Dish Gourmet.
He tries to obtain as many local products as possible for his sandwiches, utilizing offerings from Long Family Farms, Wisdom Farm, Colorado Best Beef, Cure Farm, Abbondanza and Munson Farms, though he says it’s not always as simple as automatically going with what’s produced nearest.
“If I have spinach on my menu and spinach isn’t in Colorado, I’ve got to get spinach from somewhere else,” Benham says. His menu hasn’t changed in four years, since he says people expect the wide array of choices it offers. His bread comes from a California company, because of ordering restrictions that come with buying locally. Climate and logistics issues aside, another significant roadblock to local purchasing is the price.
“It’s probably 10 percent to 15 percent more expensive,” Benham says of buying from local purveyors. His sandwiches average about $9.95, compared to other local sandwiches that cost between $5 and $8.
“Overall, there is more cost attached with [buying locally],” Mendenhall says. Since customers are only willing to pay so much for food, he says they sometimes must be willing to “not make quite the margin we that we’d like” on some things.
“If we have Cure Farm Brussels sprouts, we might charge $10 for a plate of them, because that’s what it’s worth,” Mendenhall says. “Is that highpriced compared to what you get at the grocery store? Probably a little bit.” But he credits Boulder’s educated, affluent community that holds local eating in high esteem for the restaurant’s continued success.
CCA students were curious — just what would a completely local taco look like? They found all of the ingredients could come from California, but that a single taco would cost between $8 and $12, compared to the existing $2.25 per taco.
“People are just starting to be more willing to spend more money for higher-quality ingredients,” Fletcher says.
But spending $6 to $10 more for lunch each day may be impossible within many budgets.
Both Benham and Mendenhall appreciate their customers’ willingness to spend more for higher quality food.
“I don’t know if my clientele is looking for the cheapest thing they can get,” Benham says. “They know what to expect. If they want a cheaper sandwich they can go to Subway.”