Sunday, April 22, 2007

Urban Supply Chains

Seward Coop hosted a promo day for all the area CSA's this past weekend. CSA, in case you didn't know, stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The basic idea is this: rather than get your produce for a regional (or national) grocer drawing from an (inter)national supply chain, you buy a share in a local farm. During the regular growing season (June to October), you get 8-12 lbs of mixed produce (whatever's in season at the moment). It adds up to about $2.50 per pound. Your money helps support the local economy, you eat better (and often organic) produce, and you help the environment by reducing transportation costs associated with bringing goods to market.

This got me thinking about supply chains, urban environments, and energy costs. One of the key arguments in favor of the urban concentration of human beings is that it theoretically reduces transportation costs. In a suburban region without a central nodal point, goods have to be shipped in smaller bundles to more locations (thus using more energy for that transportation). In an urban environment, the higher density translates into fewer nodal points for distribution. Hence, you can ship large parcels of goods to fewer geographic distribution nodes. Urban environments = less transportation costs.

It's a great idea, in theory anyway. Subscribing to (er, buying a share in) a CSA is a good step in that direction. By committing to buying your produce from a local supplier, you ensure that no additional energy is expended bringing in out-of-season goods.

There are, however, a few drawbacks:

(1) Seasonal eating - If you really want to eat out-of-season produce, the only way to do it is to ship it in from some part of the planet where it is in season. If I want strawberries in December, I won't be getting them from Minnesota farms!

(2) Distribution costs - I still need to go to a distribution node to pick up my weekly box of produce. It's not clear to me whether the energy expended by all the private transit automobiles going to and from these distribution nodes adds up significantly.

(3) Limited distribution nodes - Since some CSA's aren't that big, they don't necessarily have convenient distribution points in any given city. Subscribers may in fact drive farther to reach the CSA distribution point than they would driving to a conventional grocery store.

At any rate, I'm willing to give it a shot. Looking for to the asparagus...

Coming this Friday: Practical Ideas for Bus Safety


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