The “value” of food can be simplistically quantified by a formula: Value = Quality/Cost. While many individuals have helped lower costs and raise and preserve quality, two deserve special mention for the creative, disruptive ways they helped reshape and foster today’s global food supply.
Maxton, N.C., was struggling as the Great Depression’s grip on America’s economy tightened in the early 20th century. Settled by the Scottish in the late 1700s, Mack’s Town was shortened to Maxton, a more fitting and proper name for place that was becoming a railroad center. But as local timber disappeared and farm prices plummeted, even the railroad couldn’t keep Maxton’s economy from the margins.
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By all accounts, Malcom McLean was a bright boy with good prospects. But typical of the time, his family’s income was insufficient for him to go on past high school, especially in the mid-1930s. So McLean did what he could, driving a truck, moving empty tobacco barrels around the state. While family finances limited his educational reach, perhaps they fueled his desire for economic stability, even growth. He and his two siblings formed a small trucking company; McLean still driving, but now bringing cotton up north for export.
With U.S. Highway 1, the main route north more a cobbling of established roads than a real interstate, it took far longer to get to New York’s ports than it takes today. And once he arrived, his trip was only beginning.
The cotton was off-loaded from McLean’s truck only when the stevedores who handled ships’ cargo had a place to put it on the pier, so it could then be hoisted into the ship’s hold. And whether McLean was patient or not, it must have seemed a waste of time for a man in a hurry to “turn and burn.” There had to be a better way.
Maybe it is apocryphal or maybe it’s true, but it’s rumored during his trip up north, McLean asked, “Why couldn’t an entire truck be hoisted aboard ship, for instance, and then used for delivery purposes at the other end of the line?”
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It took McLean another 20 years to realize his vision. Loading an entire truck and its contents wasted too much precious space, so he had to develop containers. And cargo ships had to be redesigned to accommodate these newly created and standardized containers.
Malcom took a World War II tanker and retrofitted its deck to carry his new containers, and in 1956 the first container ship sailed out of Newark, N.J., with 58 containers that six days later were unloaded in Houston. It took some time, but the wake of that shipment was felt globally and it changed the face of the shipping industry, remaking ship and harbor design, creating a new manufacturing sector for containers—while, it should be noted, decimating an established workforce and their union. When all was said and done, the cost of loading a ship was reduced from $5.86 per ton to 16 cents.
The history of food refrigeration for transportation dates back centuries. In the early 1800s, Frederic Tudor, “The Ice King” of Massachusetts, developed a means to harvest the ice formed on lakes and ponds during New England’s winter, and subsequently transported the ice to the far warmer climes, even the sun-soaked Caribbean.
At his peak he was sending ice to India, 12,000 or more nautical miles away. Having demonstrated the ability to ship ice, it was only a small step to use ice for protecting perishable produce. Food grown in one part of the country could be packed in ice and transported by rail across to the other. In fact, the name for iceberg lettuce is claimed to come from the piles of ice packed in with the lettuce when it was shipped by railcar.