How To Research Your Lunch

Pick a meal— breakfast, lunch or dinner, made at home or eaten at a restaurant—and trace the origin and journey of each of the ingredients of that meal as far back as you can possibly go. If you had a sandwich, for example, you would want to research where the filling originated (not just the store, vendor, or distributor, but where the meat or cheese or peanut and fruit was processed, harvested, raised, and grown and how it made its way from the farm to the processor to the packager to the store). And you also need to find out where the flour for the bread was grown and where it was milled, sorted, packaged, shipped and sold. The same should be done for condiments, whole fruits, drinks, side salads, chips of whatever sort, dessert, and anything else consumed at the meal. You are embarking on a reverse scavenger hunt: your meal was your prize and you must trace back all the steps of how that lunch came to be on your plate. The goal is to get a real sense of how many people are involved in the creation of your meal, who those people are, where they are located, and how much activity is required for a single meal of your choosing. You will become a food forensics expert. Here is another way of thinking about it: if the food you ate had e-Coli or listeria or salmonella, you would want to know exactly the trail it took to get to you so that all the different places of possible contamination would be known and could be scoured and sanitized. Not knowing the point of contamination would be a huge expense for a company that would need to pay for sanitizing every possible route a product could have traveled. This assignment asks you to become a food forensics expert for one specific meal you consumed. Your meal must have at least three different components, one of which must be a composite food item (that is, made up of two or more parts, like a sandwich or spaghetti with sauce). You will then write a complete narrative of the origin of the meal you chose. the trucking company, the distributor, the processing plant and the farm where your ingredients began their journey. And you will find that some companies are more helpful than others. (Trader Joe’s is notoriously secretive about where they get their products and who manufactures food sold under a Trader Joe’s label; pick foods that you can actually trace.) As you do your research, remember always to remain courteous, professional, and open-minded; you will no doubt encounter customer service people (by email and by phone) who will be somewhat suspicious of your motives in finding the origin of your food. Other companies consider the names of their suppliers to be proprietary information. Be mindful of your task and explain the assignment to them; you can consider this exercise a way of practicing your own skills in public and personal relations. It is up to you to get the information you need; if you are stymied by one particular company or source, think of other ways to get the information you need or switch meals.

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