Mapping where your food comes from and goes

Chicken parmesan with marinara sauce and pasta will never seem the same after you take a look at Kayla Races food mapping research project. Through a Middlebury College summer internship, Race, a senior from Topsfield, Mass., created a colorful interactive mapping system that charts the often dizzying journey from farm to plate. When you open Races electronic chicken parmesan map, you begin with a full view of the earth and then promptly zoom down to Middlebury. Clicking on a small icon she created for the college opens a window offering links to Middleburys main food suppliers, which in turn offer links to their suppliers, sometimes with extra facts about where the food is raised (Quick, can you point to the Durum Wheat Triangle?). Each successive click adds a colored line connecting you to the next supplier, wherever it may be. Before long a spaghetti-like web of lines stretches from Middlebury to Arkansas to Indiana to Italy, providing a glimpse into how much effort was required to get that humble chicken parmesan dinner to your plate. The food mapping project was conceived by Christopher Howell, a 2006 Middlebury College graduate, and co-sponsored by the geography department, environmental studies program, dining services and the college garden. Howell graduated before he could delve any deeper into the project, but he has stayed involved as an advisor. Race began her research unsure of how the final product would look. However, she knew that with her joint major in environmental studies and studio art, the internship was well suited to her interests. I thought it would be great to apply my classroom G.I.S. experience in a practical way. I also knew I would like the creative part when it came to drawing the maps. Behind the elegant animated map is a lot of data, and collecting it was Races first task. Working with a team that included G.I.S. Specialist Hegman and Director of Dining Services Matthew Biette, she researched supplier invoices, called companies, sent countless emails and found herself swimming in a sea of spreadsheets. In order to keep the project manageable, Race and her supervisors decided to focus on four typical, well-loved meals served at Middlebury College dining halls: Breakfast (including eggs, bacon and sausage), a Mexican lunch, chicken parmesan and the annual Thanksgiving feast of local foods. Race recognized that in order for the maps to be effective, they would need to be interesting and fun to use. I wanted to create something that would make a real visual bang for students or faculty or whoever would be viewing it. I also wanted it to appear where students would see it the most. I know that a lot of students go to the online menu every day and that is one place where we could put it in front of everyones face. Her results are literally all over the map. Chicken parmesan comes from far and wide, but a typical breakfast and the Thanksgiving meal, Race notes, show the colleges commitment to purchasing locally produced food. According to Biette, the college currently buys an impressive 25-30 percent of the food for its nearly 7,000 meals each day from local sources. Biette was also struck with a secondary picture that emerged from the mapping that of an Italian pasta company which imported wheat from North America (due to a crop disaster in Europe), manufactured the pasta in Italy, then shipped it back to the U.S. He says that Races mapping system may help identify especially fragile points in the food system. What happens when all of a sudden a crop fails and you still need to get the product out the door? Biette asks. These are the kinds of vulnerabilities that become clear when you see them mapped out.

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