Joining the cold chain

The tiny store that opened in 2011 linked the co-op to the global “cold chain” that undergirds the modern food system.

Here’s another short clip from the book I’ve been working on about my involvement at the food co-op in Orange. 

The tiny store upstairs in the Orange Innovation Center opened in 2011, the same year that the North Quabbin Community Co-operative formally incorporated. Like all co-operative businesses, it was governed by a board of directors elected by members, which in this case consisted largely of the core organizers who had already been functioning essentially as a board. The store was open only a few hours a week, staffed entirely by volunteers.

The limitations of the new space quickly made themselves felt. The cramped space was hard to ventilate, so things went from being too cold to too hot. With limited funds, the co-op had opted for used freezers and coolers over new, and the old equipment didn’t always stand up well to the heat. Sometimes a unit would just quit; sometimes the power went out or a volunteer didn’t notice a too-high temperature in the freezer when closing up the store for the day. When that happened, all the food inside had to be thrown away.

It was cold comfort – or maybe warm – that the members included a number of backyard chicken-keepers as well as the owner of a compost company, all of whom would gladly take the food rather than sending it to the landfill.

The moment you even think about selling perishable foods in the U.S. – the moment you go beyond the farmer with a waxed box of freshly-picked cucumbers in the back of his truck – you have to intersect what’s known as the “cold chain.” It’s part of the invisible lifeblood coursing through the modern industrial food system, along with the petroleum that fuels everything from the farmer’s tractor to Squash’s delivery vehicles to the giant semi trailers you see disgorging pallets of food at supermarket warehouses and loading docks.

The cold chain runs from field or sea to plate, through a thick tangle of regulation and inspection. It’s not something you can opt out of if you want to get into the modern food business and stay there, even for a minute.

So the discussions at the North Quabbin Community Co-op quite quickly started to circle around how to get and maintain more reliable equipment. Doing that meant having a bigger space. To pay for a bigger space, they needed to sell more food. And to sell more food they needed to be in a much more visible location.

Founding board member Robin Shtulman remembers, “The conversations that we had before we moved to the storefront were that we couldn’t grow any more and we weren’t going to be able to keep doing what we were doing unless we grew. We had to grow in order to keep going.”

The little co-op in Orange was teetering on the edge of the cycle that helped create the modern supermarket-centric food system, where small stores have gradually – or sometimes suddenly – scaled up and larger ones have continually expanded into chains and absorbed smaller ones in their own pursuit of growth.

Every step can be a logical and often a purely logistical one: freezers, sales, visibility, more sales. But eventually it takes on its own momentum. Like the cold chain, it pulls you into something far beyond what any individual business can actually control. And once you’re in it, you’re in.

More on the the history and influence of refrigeration and the cold chain:

  • Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History (Belknap, 2010)
  • Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)
  • Tom Jackson, Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015)
1 year ago

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