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3 Degrees and $100M of Product: What It’s Like to Work a Shift in a Cold Storage Facility

Cold storage warehouses are essential to America’s food system. In “Frostbite,” Nicola Twilley tries out a shift alongside the Americold workers who form one link in our vast cold chain.

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We take for granted that we can eat meat from across the country or even yogurt made just a few towns away. A new book makes it eminently clear that we shouldn’t.

In Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves author Nicola Twilley (who is also the co-host of Gastropod, a podcast of Eater and the Vox Media Podcast Network) explains how refrigeration fundamentally shifted the way we live our lives, from the first discoveries that cold had the ability to preserve food, through the early ice industry, to the intricate cold storage system we live with today, one that touches the majority of what we eat. All of it is fascinating.

In the below adapted excerpt from Frostbite, Twilley tries out a shift at an Americold warehouse, a key link in America’s vast cold chain. — Monica Burton

My first day at Americold’s warehouse in Ontario, California, began promptly at 8:00 a.m. Outside, it promised to become the kind of blue-skied, 70-degree March day that makes southern California feel like the paradise it plays on TV. Inside, Anthony Espinoza, the facility’s general manager, warned me it was just 3 degrees in the coolers and between 36 and 38 degrees on the dock. “It’s minus 10 in the freezer,” he added, radiating good cheer. “That’s the tundra.”

The cover for “Frostbite” by Nicola Twilley.
Frostbite is on sale now, where books are sold.

My expedition into the artificial cryosphere — the vast synthetic winter we’ve built to preserve our food — began here, with a week of shift work in the refrigerated warehouses of inland California. Americold is one of the largest providers of temperature-controlled warehouse space, not only in the United States but around the world. Globally, the company maintains 1.5 billion cubic feet of cold, storing everything from ground beef destined for school lunch programs to frozen lobsters on their way to upscale restaurant chains like McCormick & Schmick’s. In Ontario, most of the 100,000-square-foot warehouse is given over to Danone products: pallet after pallet of Horizon chocolate milk, Land O’Lakes creamer, Silk soy milk, and Greek yogurt, much of which comes from a plant just 45 minutes away. “They focus on creating food,” explained Espinoza. “We focus on making sure it gets to their customers intact.”

Espinoza and his warehouse manager, Kyle Schwedes, had already welcomed two new recruits the day before. “I told them it’s very cold, it’s very physical, it’s very demanding,” said Schwedes. He and Espinoza look for a few essential attributes in warehouse candidates. Interpersonal skills and attention to detail are important, but experience driving a stand‑up reach forklift is nonnegotiable.

The other essential test is, of course, how the would‑be warehouse worker reacts to the frigid temperatures. “I love the cold,” said Espinoza. “It preserves me! All our guys have a youthful appearance.” (Much to his delight, I had guessed his age as a full decade younger than he actually is.) Still, a lot of people are just not cut out for a career spent inside a gigantic fridge. A shift supervisor named Amato told me he’d seen dozens of new recruits leave after only a couple of hours in the chiller. “They take off their coats at lunchtime, and poof! They’re gone,” he said. “It’s the rare person that lasts here.”

Once I was deemed ready to start my first shift at Americold, I was introduced to my buddy, an old-timer named Jimmy Ambrosi. Together we went through one final safety check and some warm‑up stretches. Then I followed him into room 1, fumbling my way through the curtain of heavy-gauge vinyl strips that separate the docking zone from the coolers. “Welcome to Disneyland,” Ambrosi yelled as I gazed up into a series of narrow slot canyons whose walls were made of Stonyfield Farm, Dannon Light + Fit, COCOYO nondairy, and Oikos Greek yogurts. “Just under 7,000 pallet positions and we’re 95 percent full. I’m going to guess there’s 100 million dollars’ worth of product in here right now,” he calculated. At the supermarket, it’s normal to encounter more yogurt than I would eat in a year. This was more yogurt than I could eat in a lifetime: thousands upon thousands of cartons, all packed into chunky cardboard cubes on wooden pallets, each cube swathed in plastic wrap and stacked on steel racking, reaching three stories up to the ceiling’s girder skeleton and receding into the distance as far as the eye could see.

Lighting uses energy and emits heat, so a perpetual blue­gray gloom prevails inside the windowless cooler and freezer rooms. Pools of deeper blue light traveled along the icy concrete floor, projected from the LED spotlights mounted on each forklift truck, in order to forewarn others of its emergence from the canyon depths. Each time a forklift reversed, a chorus of beeps pierced the unending roar of enormous fans. Everything seemed dimmed and muffled — even the air felt dense.

At Americold, new hires are assigned to stocking — moving freshly delivered perishables into the cooler or freezer — and picking, or getting them out again, for their first 90 days, so that’s where I began. The racks store pallets three deep and six high, and product has to go out in the date order it came in. The Ontario facility typically receives 120 truckloads a day, and because it runs more or less at capacity, putting new pallets away often means shuffling old pallets around first. Ambrosi’s headset told us what to pick up and where it should go, and we used a scanner gun to log each pallet’s final destination.

To make this daily game of warehouse Jenga even more challenging, certain products can’t go next to each other. In the cooler, you have to make sure foods containing allergens — soy, nuts, dairy, wheat — aren’t touching; in the freezer, that’s okay. Organic products shouldn’t sit underneath conventional ones; raw foods mustn’t be stacked above cooked. “You have to think about odor,” added Espinoza. “Onions and seafood can be quite potent.” Pizza sauce and pepperoni are also disturbingly pungent: just a few hours spent picking Schwan’s Big Daddy’s Pepperoni and Freschetta Supreme sausage frozen pizzas was enough to make my woolen beanie and furry coat collar stink for days. Like natural fibers, bread and cheese have a tendency to absorb the odors to which they’re exposed, as does ice cream, which can’t even be stored in the same room as the pizzas.

Making sure food at the bottom of the pallet doesn’t get squashed by the weight of the food above is another requirement for successful stocking, as is ensuring that the finished cube is evenly weighted, so as not to risk tipping the forklift.

As I struggled to take it all in, my brain numbed by the cold, my new colleagues sympathized. “I never imagined a place like this could exist before I worked here,” Frank, who had swapped his company‐issued beanie for a Raiders hat, told me. “I go to the store now and I think, I probably picked this. What we do — I feel it’s invisible.” “Before, I used to see this stuff and I didn’t think about how it got there,” agreed Carlos. “You see the guys in the store filling the shelves, but how did it get to them? No one ever thinks about that. But if it wasn’t for me, that pepperoni pizza wouldn’t be there.”

Determined to earn my cryospheric credentials, I was thrilled when I took just 24 minutes and 40 seconds of my HQ‑allotted 29:32 to complete my first picking task. But after less than half an hour in the freezer, the chill had crept in. My fingers and toes were numb; my nose wouldn’t stop running. “New guys will put tissue up their noses,” said Amato. “You see guys who want to work, and they just can’t handle the cold.” Men with facial hair grew miniature icicles in their mustaches and beards; the one guy wearing glasses had to stop and wipe off the condensation from his breath every few minutes. Everyone gets sick in their first few months on the job, I was told; colds, coughs, and “freezer flu” are a year-round phenomenon in the cold-storage industry.

Much remains to be learned about the health impact of working in the cold or the ways in which humans adapt to life in the cryosphere, either natural or artificial. What I can say is that, as the days went on, I did not get used to the cold at all. In fact, the discomfort seemed cumulative: the longer I spent inside an Americold warehouse, the more I wanted to get out. Carlos, a round-faced forklift operator, told me he found it easier to just not warm up. “Even in winter, I blast the AC in the car on the drive home,” he said. “For the guys that come in on the bus, it’s hell.”

At the end of my first day, torn between joy at my imminent return to ambient temperature and a deep-seated desire for approval, I asked Amato if he would hire me. “I would, and here’s why,” he said. “Your nose isn’t very red.”

Adapted from FROSTBITE by Nicola Twilley. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024, Nicola Twilley.

Listen to the Gastropod episode on Frostbite:

Luis Pinto is a Mexican graphic designer/illustrator currently based in Guatemala, represented by Mendola Artists (US) and Illo Agency (UK).

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