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Your Taco, Deconstructed

Examining the ingredients in a taco paints a picture of the globalization of our food production network. Look closely enough at...

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Examining the ingredients in a taco paints a picture of the globalization of our food production network.Look closely enough at anything and you can start to see the sum of its parts. Even, for instance, a single taco, which, when examined recently by a group of architecture students, became a window into the complexities of globalization. The assignment was part of URBANlab, a program of The California College of the Arts that took place under the guidance of landscape architect David Fletcher and members of the art and design studio Rebar.The goal was to map the local "tacoshed," which, much like a watershed, establishes the geographical boundaries of a taco's origins-the source of everything from the corn in the tortilla to the tomatoes in the salsa.By thoroughly understanding what it takes to make a taco, the class hoped to become "better able to propose and design a speculative model of a holistic and sustainable urban future." The final product is a surprisingly useful microcosm of the industrial food system and its "richly complex network of systems, flows, and ecologies." According to the class findings, within a single taco, the ingredients had traveled a total of 64,000 miles, or just over two and a half times the circumference of the earth.For the project, each student worked to trace one ingredient back to its source, a task that turned out to be harder than it sounds. "It was difficult to trace the origins of these foods because of the intense obfuscation by the corporations that produce them," said Rebar's John Bela at a recent unveiling of the research at San Francisco's Studio for Urban Projects. The students spent hours on the phone, spoke to customer representatives in corporate offices and eventually gathered the data necessary to create a map that includes farms, corporate offices, and the exact routes traveled by planes, trucks, and shipping containers.The taco the group deconstructed was from Juan's Taco Truck in the city's Mission District, where every ingredient had been purchased from either Costco or Restaurant Depot, and had been chosen because it was the absolute most economical option possible-making it the taco most people are likely to eat."We talked a lot about what the moral taco would look like, or the locavore taco, but this was the cheapest taco you can produce in San Francisco," said Annalise Aldrich, a CCA student who helped present the group's findings. Aldrich and another student, Rachael Yu, walked the audience through some highlights of their research.The students were surprised to find that several ingredients were produced locally, such as the salt, which had come from just south of San Francisco. The cheese, which appeared at Restaurant Depot as an in-house brand called Supremo Italiano, was actually from a company with 10 regional plants around the West that source ingredients and sell locally, despite their larger national brand.Other ingredients had come from much further away. The various spices in the Adobo seasoning, for instance, had traveled a combined 15,000 miles. The avocados had traveled from Chile, home of the world's largest avocado grower (a company that was said to produce 300 million fruit per year). The rice was imported from Thailand, despite an abundance of California-grown rice, and was packaged under an array of brand names. "The taco truck owner may have bought the bag with the Sombrero on it, while another shopper at Restaurant Depot might have bought the exact same rice with a Buddha on the package," said Bela.Rather than emphasize the current polarity between local and globally produced food, the students were given a chance to examine the values of both modes of production, from a systems perspective. Key to this process was a close look at the embodied energy in each ingredient, or the sum total of the energy necessary for its entire life-cycle. The students compared tomatoes grown in a greenhouse with those shipped from the Southern Hemisphere, where they'd been grown in summer weather. They looked at aluminum foil, which originated as an aluminum alloy that was mined in New Zealand, and had traveled farther than the elements of the taco, but can be recycled indefinitely without degrading in quality."We left the project critical of the dogma that tends to frame the issue of provenance," David Fletcher said. Or, as Edlrich told the audience: "We came away with the idea that global isn't necessarily bad."Rebar and Fletcher plan to publish a book detailing the class' complete findings. In the meantime, a more complete run-down of the research will be appearing in the next issue of Meatpaper Magazine.Guest blogger Twilight Greenaway writes a weekly newsletter about sustainable food for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. Her writing can also be found at Culinate, Civil Eats, and Ethicurean. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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