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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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].”
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.”