Image via OHNY
Since last April, Open House New York has been busy leading tours of some of New York City’s great food hubs, from the massive Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx (where we also brought readers to last year) to the posh new all-things-French Le District food hall in Battery Park City. Dubbed The Final Mile, the series of tours and events was a peek into the vastly complex daily charade of producing, distributing and selling the food required to fill the stomachs of over 8 million New Yorkers. The program wrapped up on Thursday with a discussion between several food experts about the future of the city’s gastronomic ecosystem.
Feeding New York is indeed a massive undertaking. The city’s population is higher than ever before and is expected to grow by an additional 1 million by 2030. A record 60 million tourists are expected to visit this year. Jockeying to feed all those hungry mouths are 24,000 restaurants, 55,000 grocery stores, bodegas and other retailers, and 120 farmers markets, and counting. Yet despite such a robust infrastructure, some 3 million New Yorkers lack adequate access to fresh food in their neighborhoods, and one in five seek assistance from a soup kitchen or food pantry. A changing climate and growing inequality put further pressure on this complex system. But New Yorkers, with our “overwhelming preoccupation with food,” as OHNY’s Gregory Wessner put it, may be uniquely qualified to tackle some of these challenges.
Honey labeled by its neighborhood of origin, for sale at the Union Square Greenmarket. Image via OHNY
The Final Mile grew out of an examination of the city’s manufacturing industry OHNY conducted last year. In fact, food manufacturing is the only sector in the industry that is growing in New York City. Nationwide, employment in food manufacturing is shrinking. And while much attention has been paid to the success of various high-end food producers here, from New York Distilling Company to Mast Brothers Chocolate, they are only part of the story. Bakeries, for one, and tortilla bakeries in particular, are enjoying a resurgence in the five boroughs. Despite relatively high labor and real estate costs, food producers locate in New York for the same reason other companies do – they like it here, and so do their employees. Being close to their target market of course doesn’t hurt.
Cost of workspace is far and away the biggest hurdle to food manufacturers in the city, according to Adam Lubinsky, a principal at design firm WXY who has worked on studies related to food production for various clients. These are businesses that want to be on the ground floor, in column-free spaces, with relatively quick access to transportation, all factors that can prod up rental costs. They are prohibited from opening up shop anywhere but industrial districts, which have shrunk as the city has lost much manufacturing employment. The city’s current administration has put its weight behind affordable housing, but potentially at the exclusion of affordable workspace.
Fish for sale at the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx
Image via OHNY
Some survive by opening front-of-house retail – see Brooklyn Brewery’s tasting room and Li-Lac Chocolates and several others at Industry City. Industry City in particular has made an effort to cultivate a thriving food-centric atmosphere, showcasing several of its food production businesses through retail operations in its ground floor food court. Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem is a good example of a shared commercial kitchen, another model that has proliferated as a way to cut down on real estate and start-up costs for young food producers in the city. La Marqueta, where Hot Bread Kitchen is located, is a Hispanic-centric food market operated by the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) that has found an especially innovative real estate solution – by burrowing under the Metro North railroad tracks.
Inside Hot Bread Kitchen
According to Lubinsky, one way to ease some of the real estate pressure on these businesses would be to relax the zoning code so non-noxious manufacturers wouldn’t have to be so segregated from residential and commercial uses. The exclusion of food uses from other zones is one reason why so much of the city’s food distribution network has been concentrated in one node – the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. Hunts Point supplies 60% of the produce consumed in the city and half of the meat and fish. But our dependence on it puts the city in a precarious position. Sitting in FEMA’s “high flood risk” zone, Hunts Point is threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather events, a vulnerability that approached potential disaster during Hurricane Sandy.
At least 60% of the produce consumed in New York City is moved through Hunts Point
Image via NYCEDC
Carolyn Dimitri, the director of the food studies PhD program at NYU thinks the very idea of a central terminal market is outdated. Hunts Point’s longevity is owed in part to the preponderance of restaurants and small neighborhood corner stores in New York City. A centralized distribution hub also presents environmental and logistical challenges: 15,000 trucks come in and out of Hunts Point every day. Because it takes longer for food deliveries to be made in sprawling metropolises like New York, perishable foods inevitably lose some luster. That is why those bananas and avocados at your local bodega don’t usually look very appetizing.
Lubinsky and others have advocated for more perishable foods to be grown nearer their eventual consumers. Kathleen Bakewell, a landscape architect, supports a networked, dispersed ecosystem around New York City for growing food, like ribbons of agricultural land taking the place of disused rail yards or industrial tracts winding through the suburbs. Companies like AeroFarms in Newark and Gotham Greens in Brooklyn have introduced the region to indoor and hydroponic farming. While these of course have great real estate and energy demands themselves, some suggest making more underutilized space on NYCHA properties or even disused subway tunnels available for more indoor urban farming.
One in five New Yorkers depend on soup kitchens or food pantries like the Food Bank for New York City. Image via Nicolas Lemery Nantel
But Dimitri, the food studies director, is skeptical about the large scale feasibility of urban agriculture. She notes that the land mass required to feed New York City on a vegetarian diet for one year would occupy about 10% of New York State’s area. By comparison, Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm, has enough acreage to feed five people for a year. Dimitri reasons that New York City real estate is expensive for a reason – that there are far better uses for our land here than growing food. Our food delivery system has become not only industrialized and nationalized, but globalized, and reforming it at a neighborhood scale would be basically impossible.
That’s not to say some haven’t tried. Ray Figueroa is the president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, and a strident crusader for the humble community garden. Under his purview are 500 community gardens, 400 school gardens and 700 gardens on NYCHA property. Figueroa is working with the NYCEDC to ensure more residential projects developed on city land come equipped with edible gardens, especially in neighborhoods where high-quality food is out of reach. In the South Bronx, 50% residents are considered rent-burdened, so growing their own food helps balance the budget. It can act as a form of unemployment insurance. Figueroa and Dimitri agree on one thing – that community gardens aren’t simply a source of food, but an important generator of community cohesion, identity and pride.
Champagne is served at Le District, a French-themed food hall in Battery Park City. Image via Ben Helmer
That food can be something beyond just a form of nourishment should come as no surprise. We bind up our history, our values, our culture in our food. As Wessner of OHNY said, food has become an “increasingly powerful agent of gentrification.” We need look no further than the sleek coffee shops and artisanal ice cream bars that seem to foretell the arrival of another hip neighborhood to know Wessner is right. Yet The Final Mile aimed not to focus on the culinary differences among this ethnically and economically stratified city, but to show us how alike we really are, not only in our shared passion for eating, but in our ignorance of how complex our food infrastructure really is.
Next, look behind the scenes inside the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, where 60% of produce sales in NYC take place.