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  • Writer's pictureCaterina Sullivan

From Toil to Table: A Journey Across Continents

Updated: Nov 3, 2018

Image credit: United Nations Photo

As a child, my favourite time of the year was potato harvesting season. I would go over to my next-door-neighbour’s house where Uncle Ernie, my surrogate grandfather, would grow potatoes each year. In October, his four grandchildren and I would have THE BEST time digging the potatoes--a tradition my father now continues with my nephews.

On the day of their first potato harvesting experience, Dad turned to my nephews and asked, “Where do you think potatoes come from?” to which my eldest nephew responded, “From the shops!”

This response is adorable from a child and got a giggle out of everyone. But do you actually know where potatoes come from? For that matter, do you know where any of your food comes from?

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture estimates the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to table. This is about the distance from San Francisco, California to Austin, Texas.

What is happening over these 1,500 miles?

I like to break the process down into four distinct steps.


Image credit: World Bank

There are many issues that arise from the farming process. One issue is the exploitation of workers. Some farmers experience a life where they have no bed, no functioning toilets and no reliable water supply. Those who are not self-employed can feel the pressures of their employers withholding pay to prevent them from leaving mid-harvest. Furthermore, women and girls tend to be the most exploited as they are less likely to be educated than males in many countries around the world and, therefore, tend to end up in farming roles.

SOLUTION: Look for Fairtrade symbols on any products you buy. These products support developing countries and the socially and economically margined.


Image credit: Vetatur Fumare

You may see a lot of coverage in the media about ‘food miles’. Food miles are exactly what they say - the amount of miles your food has travelled from toil to table. We always hear about food miles as they contribute to the growing amount of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Estimates place the amount of emissions in the atmosphere due to food transport somewhere between 15 and 20% of total CO2 emissions.

SOLUTION: The farmer’s market revolution is growing. More and more people are looking to buy local, fresh produce to feed their family. Farmer’s markets are available in many cities and can be located with a few nimble keystrokes into Google.


This is when distributors, or middle-men, buy harvests in bulk to then parcel out to stores. Many low-income countries impose heavy taxes on farmers to raise revenue. This can make the farming life even more difficult.

SOLUTION: In 2000, the United States implemented the African Growth Opportunity Act. This offers preferential access for US consumers to buy African products in order to boost their economies. Since then, the European Union has developed and implemented similar initiatives..


Image credit: Natalie Maynor

This is the step in the the process everyone knows best--grocery shopping. What kind of issues could this have on global development? Did you know we produce enough food globally for no one ever to go hungry? Society wastes 1.3 billion tons of food per year. That’s nearly a third of our overall food production!

SOLUTION: You can make a difference by limiting the amount of food you waste. Maybe even think about keeping a food waste diary in order to bring the issue to the forefront of your daily activities.

So there you have it.

How the hamburger got to your table. Food is critical for survival, but the next time you think about what’s for dinner, think about whether the food you are eating to stay alive is impacting someone else’s right to live.

This article was originally published on the Global Citizen website.


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