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Visualizing meal mileage: student's animated map traces complex journey from farm to plate

December 4, 2007

Middlebury, Vt. -- Chicken parmesan with marinara sauce and pasta will never seem the same after you take a look at Kayla Race's food mapping research project. Through a summer internship, Race, a Middlebury College senior from Topsfield, Mass., created a colorful interactive mapping system that charts the often dizzying journey from farm to plate.

When you open Race's 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 Middlebury's 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?).

To view details on the Food Mapping Project and to try the interactive animated maps, click here.

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.

"I have never seen anything like this at another college," said Bill Hegman, a Middlebury College Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S.) specialist who supervised Race's internship. Hegman has conducted G.I.S. training at dozens of liberal arts colleges around the country through the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. "I think this is charting new territory and I think it has quite a bit of utility," he says.

The food mapping project was conceived by Christopher Howell, a 2004 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.

"Kayla's work has helped create a way to better understand the complicated journey that our food makes in order to reach us," says Howell. "Food mapping is really about helping people visualize our connection to the food system in a fun and compelling way," he says.

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 Race's 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 experienced the complexity of the global food web first-hand when she and Biette took a field trip to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Mass. In an atmosphere that seems like utter chaos to an outsider, hundreds of trucks pass in and out daily, delivering produce from thousands of farms around the world to be sold to restaurants, stores and institutions throughout New England.

"Most of the items are bar-coded, but in that setting it's hard to imagine tracing any one item back to where it came from," Race says. "I'm just imagining trying to track down the source of an orange that came from Burlington Food Service, which bought a hundred cases of oranges from three different companies who bought them from who knows how many farms."

Data collected and spreadsheets filled, Race was ready to bring the maps to life. She mulled over several complex graphic programs to help create the maps, but eventually settled on the much simpler Google Earth because it was easy to use, free and accessible to most people. It also had the dramatic visuals she was looking for in an animated map.

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 everyone's 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 college's 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 Race's 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."

The food mapping team is now looking at how to make the campus community more aware of the project and how the project can be expanded for more purposes. It has immediate implications for assessing local food purchasing, budgeting and perhaps even carbon footprints of food. It could also be a useful tool for understanding Middlebury College's impact on the area's food economy. Biette and Hegman eventually hope to see a map that shows the full network of local suppliers and illustrates the longevity of each vendor's relationship with the college.

"The database that Kayla built promises to be a good way to quantify the effects of different food purchasing decisions," says Howell, "and the way she linked the data to the map is really eye-opening. Ultimately, I hope to see the project become a tool to enable any institution to understand how it engages the food system."

To view the food mapping project online click here.