A look at what we’re freezing yields clues about food trends and the forces that shape them

By Tim Nelson
July 27, 2018
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When it comes to anthropology, food is an essential teacher. What a culture eats, how they prepare it, and where it’s served can reveal quite a bit about the history, tastes, and values that shape a given society. Similarly, what we shove in our freezers or let languish in cold storage warehouses can teach us something about the consumer preferences and market forces that determine how we value our food.

Information about our freezing habits comes courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture’s monthly cold storage report. It uses survey data compiled from roughly 660 cold storage firms and facilities to estimate the tonnage of food tucked away in cold storage warehouses around the country across a wide variety of product categories. In total, the report catalogues countless billions of pounds of food.

As you parse the data, you start to get some insights into what America is producing and hoarding. For example, it’s shaping up to be a big summer for dairy. America’s refrigerated warehouses had six percent more natural cheeses this June than they did in 2017, and eight percent more butter. That’s good news given some recent findings suggesting that full-fat dairy might not be so bad for us after all.

With President Trump’s trade war against China and Mexico inspiring retaliatory tariffs that cut into the profitability of some exported meats, some forecasters predicted that the amount of beef, pork, and poultry would eclipse previous records. As it turns out, this generally wasn’t the case: the supply of frozen red meat actually shrank seven percent overall from May’s total. Pork, one of the biggest retaliatory tariff targets, was down 10 percent month over month. Chicken supplies, however, did hit an all-time high.

The tariff situation goes to show that while the data is useful in some respects, it’s hard to determine what is (or isn’t) causing shifts in what we freeze over time. Does the fact that we froze 11 percent less fruit and six percent less vegetables in June 2018 than we did in June 2017 mean that we’re doing a better job of allocating and consuming fresh produce? Or have we lost our appetite for healthy eating and there’s less of a need to hold onto fruits and vegetables in the first place? In a vacuum, we just don’t know.

If anything, reading the report reminds us that the sheer tonnage of food just waiting to be shipped to grocery stores or food banks could feed the vast majority of food insecure people here in the United States, if not around the world. Hopefully better supply chains and smarter decision-making can help get us to the point where we’re setting records for the amount of food that never has to sit in cold storage in the first place. But until that day comes, the USDA’s monthly report is a fascinating look at what’s in our nation’s collective freezer.