Alternative Distribution Nodes & Local Economies

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This spring, The Final Mile—Open House New York’s year long series exploring how our city’s food system shapes the built environment—kicked off with a series of tours at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. Together, tours of two of the city’s three major public wholesale markets, a regional specialty foods distributor, and the distribution hub for many of the city’s food pantries provided a sense of the immense scale of New York City’s food system: a 24-hour-a-day, multi-billion-dollar enterprise that employs thousands of New Yorkers, from wholesalers and manufacturers to grocery store clerks and waiters.

Hunts Point was built to centralize food distribution in New York, and to isolate the mess and traffic of this activity away from the city’s densely packed core. This effort was notably successful: today, fully half of the food consumed in the five boroughs comes through the Hunts Point peninsula. But what about that other half of the food that we eat? Some of it is routed to the city through suburban hubs, but there are also a host of secondary and alternative food distribution nodes embedded directly within dense, mixed-use neighborhoods across the five boroughs. Some of these nodes bypass Hunts Point altogether; some redistribute food that enters the city through Hunts Point for further processing; still others combine retail, manufacturing, and wholesaling, mixed in amongst the many diverse elements of daily city life.

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This summer, The Final Mile will continue its exploration of how food shapes the urban environment through visits to three typologically diverse sites throughout the city that serve as secondary or alternative nodes within the food distribution system. In the latest episode of How Great Cities Are Fed, food systems expert Karen Karp and her team look at how the evolution of modern transportation systems has impacted urban food distribution. The episode speaks directly to why flexible, multi-nodal food distribution systems are so important to the interrelated issues of resiliency and access to local/regional food. Says Karp:

“We need [urban food] systems to work no matter what…even when there’s a disaster, whether it be a security breach like 9/11, or a more climate-related natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy. In both of these cases, we found that the good idea that was to designate the Hunts Point peninsula as New York City’s food distribution zone is still a really good idea—but it is not the only idea. The city has become so big that small distributors [struggle to] get there on a daily basis, but when there is a disruption…they can’t get there at all. And what happens to the neighborhoods that are furthest away from these central distribution hubs? There need to be smaller distribution outlets in these places, not as back ups, but as part of a rebuilt network of [food distribution].”

If New Yorkers are serious about building a more resilient city, food security is one of the most important issues to be addressed. Join us this summer to see how existing secondary and alternative nodes within the city’s food distribution network operate, and to consider how these models might influence urban development in the future.

 

For a full list of programs, or to purchase tour tickets, click here to visit the Schedule page.

 

Tour Recap: Food Bank For New York

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By the most recent estimates, approximately 1.4 million New Yorkers—almost one out of every five—rely on emergency food, either entirely or supplementally. To meet that immense need, a complex, ecosystem of non-profit organizations has evolved alongside the city’s retail food system. As the system has scaled up, the city’s emergency food suppliers have had to follow suit. “As poverty became more large scale, people couldn’t keep up with it just cooking in their kitchen at home, or their church kitchen,” says Lee Cheney, the Food/Fund Sourcing Manager at Food Bank For New York City, one of the two food banks (along with City Harvest) that serve as the interface between local soup kitchens and food pantries and the modern industrial food chain.

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Food Bank founder Kathy Goldman (center) speaks to the group about the organization’s early days. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

On June 24, Cheney and her colleagues at the Food Bank hosted a group of visitors for a tour organized by Open House New York as part of The Final Mile, providing insight into how this “parallel system,” in Food Bank parlance, takes advantage of the food distribution hub up in Hunts Point, in the Bronx. At the Food Bank’s warehouse, a 95,000-square-foot facility located on the grounds of the Hunt’s Point Cooperative Market, the region’s primary meat wholesale market, the sophistication of the 21st century emergency food distribution network was on full display.

There are 205 food banks operating in the United States today, with 10 of them serving New York state. In 2014, the Food Bank, alone, distributed 78 million pounds of food to its member agencies across the city—enough for approximately 450,000 meals every day. About a third of the New Yorkers served by the Food Bank are senior citizens; children make up another third. After that, the largest demographic group is students, who account for about 8% of those served. And demand is rising, by 26% over the past two years according to Cheney. “Hunger in the US is very real,” Food Bank founder Kathy Goldman told the group on the bus ride up. “It is a tremendous shame; hunger has no faith, race, or age.”

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An enormous amount of food moves through the Food Bank’s 95,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bronx—enough for 450,000 meals each day. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

The Food Bank has over 1,000 member agencies across the five boroughs that feed these millions of hungry New Yorkers every day. Over time, as that network has grown, the Food Bank has taken advantage of new technology to allow them to become more and more responsive, efficient, and effective. In addition to 35 employees, the Bronx warehouse hosts about 850 volunteers every week to help with the distribution of large donations from industrial food companies and suppliers like Sysco, Chobani, and Baldor—just a few of the many conglomerates mentioned by name during the tour.

“The heart of this food bank is the guys in the warehouse,” Cheney told the group. “They move tremendous amounts of food—about 225 cases per hour.”

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“The heart of this food bank is the guys in the warehouse,” said Cheney (center), in introducing one of the warehouse workers, Kenny (right), to the group. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

At the warehouse, deliveries start coming in as early as 5:30 am, and continue until around 7. Pallets are broken down and re-packed by volunteers based on orders from member agencies, and a fleet of Food Bank trucks makes deliveries from 7 to 11 am. While the Food Bank distributes hundreds of thousands of pounds of food across the city every day, Cheney noted, they know where each item is at all times, thanks to a detailed tracking system.

“We have a record of everywhere that the food has been,” Cheney explained. “We have to have a full trail. I get recalls every day, and when that happens I can immediately reach out to our warehouse, and they can check to see if we have any supply on the floor. If anything has already gone out, we know exactly who to call. We can trace which driver, to which location—that is how tightly knot the system is.”

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The Food Bank provides food to more than 1,000 partner agencies across the five boroughs. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Improvements in distribution and tracking have also allowed the Food Bank to be more responsive in matching supply with demand. In the past, volunteers would pack boxes or pallets for re-distribution to member agencies based on what was in the warehouse at a given time. Today, Food Bank members place orders via an online ordering platform, where they can see what is on-hand at the warehouse live, 24-hours a day.

And as the supply has become more directly responsive to local demand at the neighborhood level, the Food Bank has been able to completely re-think the food pantry experience for the people who rely on the emergency food system. Recently, they have been working with member agencies to move them toward something called the open campus model. “We went into agencies and set them up like mini grocery stores,” Cheney said, in explaining open campus. “We want cans to be with cans, boxes with boxes. Preserving the dignity of the people that we serve is so critical to our mission, and we have noticed a tremendous change in spirit [among the people who come and ‘shop’ in these open campus locations].”

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Dan Cinquemani, the Food Bank’s Vice President of Food Distribution, speaks with the group about the warehouse’s detailed categorization system. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Technology, as always, is a double-edged sword. While better distribution has allowed the Food Bank to be more responsive, it has increased efficiency at all levels of the industrial food system—which means that it is becoming more difficult for food banks to secure large donations. The USDA determines “Best by” and “Sell by” dates that food manufacturers and distributors must abide by, but the government also maintains “extension dates” for food, which establish the timeframe during which food can safely be consumed after the official expiration date that commercial entities like grocery stores must follow. Food banks are the only organizations allowed to distribute food up through its extension date, but the gap between what is produced and what isn’t sold is shrinking. “With food companies and the rise of computerization, they just don’t waste as much,” Cheney said, “so they don’t have as much to donate.”

As a result, the Food Bank’s team has to stay creative, and is constantly working to build and deepen partnerships with food companies who can make large donations to supply their huge network of member agencies. For this, the organization’s facility within the hub of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center offers a critical advantage. According to Cheney, “It’s a priceless location.”