Time Magazine Food Photo Essay

Our industrialized food system nourishes more people, at lower cost, than any comparable system in history. It also exerts a terrifyingly massive influence on our health and our environment. Photographer George Steinmetz spent nearly a year traveling the country to capture that system, in all its scope, grandeur and dizzying scale. His photographs are all the more remarkable for the fact that so few large food producers are willing to open themselves to this sort of public view.

Cranberry cultivation began in Massachusetts, and it still brings to mind quaint images of New England. But the bogs that farmers have created in Wisconsin can be more efficient — they’re both flatter and neatly rectangular, making them easier for machines to fertilize, irrigate and harvest.

Lifts tip trucks to pour out their cranberry hauls. Ocean Spray, a cooperative owned by more than 700 growers, is the largest processor of cranberries on earth — last year, this facility alone took in 1.5 million barrels, nearly 13 percent of the entire global cranberry crop.

During its busiest season, Gary’s Gobblers might have up to 60,000 turkeys living on five acres of its 160-acre facility. The worker seen here is spraying an antibacterial solution into the turkey pens to prevent disease.

Newborn females arrive from local dairies and spend their first 180 days at Calf Source — first in one of 4,896 hutches, like the ones seen here, and then in larger group pens. Trucks pass down each of 72 rows, dispensing water and milk. After a transfer to Heifer Source, another facility owned by the Milk Source company, the cows are inseminated and then returned — seven months pregnant, and just under 2 years old — to the dairies they came from.

Grimmway is one of the largest carrot growers in the world. In this part of the Malaga facility, whole carrots are washed, sized and cut into two-inch “baby” pieces before passing through color sorters — where 360-degree high-speed cameras and sensors spot defective carrots and air jets push them off the line for use in juices or cattle feed.

This Salt Lake City store is, by square footage, the largest Costco Warehouse location on the planet — combining the chain’s usual “warehouse club” offerings with an expanded selection of goods from Costco Business Centers. In an average week, more than 25,000 Costco members will visit the store.

Taylor Farms doesn’t grow vegetables — it processes them, taking produce from some 200 farms and and preparing products consumed by one in three Americans. This entire facility follows the lettuce-growing season, moving 1,400 tons of machinery from Salinas, Calif., to Yuma, Ariz., in November, then back again in April. Each move only interrupts processing — like the washing lines seen here — for 56 hours.

By World War II, the J.R. Simplot Company had become the nation’s largest shipper of fresh potatoes; by 2005, it was said to be the source of more than half of all McDonald’s French fries. This 750-acre feedlot resulted from a realization by its billionaire owner, John Richard Simplot, that he could also use the waste products of his potato operation to fatten cattle.

The product being harvested here, Artisan Lettuce, requires seeding a variety of greens in each row — scheduling them all to come to maturity simultaneously — so they can be packaged in the field and sold as a salad-ready assortment.

(Left) Throughout the day, employees at the plant do a series of ergonomic stretches to prevent injuries. (Right) Cuts of meat are hand-trimmed by some of the plant’s 175 employees.

The hills of the Palouse region, stretching along the border between Idaho and Washington, have some of the most productive wheat-growing conditions in the country, with average yields that can run over 100 bushels per acre. Landowners are reluctant to sell, but they increasingly lease their fields to neighboring family farms. The wheat seen here is planted in rows perpendicular to slopes of up to 45 degrees, and it is harvested with specially modified combines.

(Above) At 376 feet, with a net more than half a mile long, the Alaska Ocean is the largest “catcher-processor” vessel in the United States fleet. (Below) On a given day, the ship’s facilities might process Alaska pollock or Pacific whiting into 60,000 pounds of fishmeal and 125,000 pounds of frozen fish — to appear in fish burgers, fish sticks and surimi, a minced fish product used to make foods like imitation crab sticks.

The two rotating carousels of this milking parlor operate 22 hours a day, milking 7,900 cows three times each. Rosendale Dairy, like Calf Source and Heifer Source, is owned by Milk Source.

Fair Oaks Farms is both a working farm and an educational tourist attraction, with a Pig Adventure area showing visitors the seven-month cycle, from birth to sale, of a pig. Here, sows are penned on their sides when nursing, while piglets spend the majority of each day feeding and growing rapidly.

The “baby greens” harvester used at Earthbound Farm, with its self-sterilizing blade and air-jet collecting mechanism, can harvest 10,000 pounds of lettuce per hour using a crew of only 12 — something that once would have taken a 40-person crew all day. Four workers advance on foot, checking for debris and scaring away pests before the machine arrives. Harvesting begins before dawn and concludes before midday, to keep the greens cooler.

George Steinmetz is a photographer who specializes in aerial photography. He has published several books of his photographs, including “New York Air,” a documentation of all five boroughs of New York City from above.

American photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio have traveled the world documenting that most basic of human behaviors—what we eat. Their project, “Hungry Planet,” depicts everything that an average family consumes in a given week—and what it costs. The pair released their book "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats" in 2005, showcasing meals in 24 countries.

The Ayme family of Tingo, Ecuador, was pictured with a haul of vegetables. The Natomo family of Kouakourou, in south-central Mali, sat for a portrait on the roof of their home with sacks of grains. And among the favorite foods listed by the Madsen family of Greenland was polar bear and the skin of a narwhal, or a medium-sized toothed whale.

In 2013 and 2014, their “Hungry Planet” portraits were exhibited by the Nobel Peace Center to give viewers a peek into kitchens from Norway to Kuwait and China to Mexico, and to raise awareness about how environments and cultures influence the cost and calories of the world’s dinners.

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