I wrote this piece for my “Environment and the Media” course while completing my master’s degree at Fordham University.

A More Resilient Food System for NYC: 

Lessons learned from Madison, Wisconsin and Boston, Massachusetts

A Food System Facing Disaster

New York City is the city that never sleeps, and that includes its food system. According to the 2013 report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” “Each year, more than 5.7 million tons of both domestic and international food shipments flow into New York City, snaking their way over sea, rail, and road from farms, fisheries, and factories to the city’s retailers and restaurants. The system that has developed to carry this bounty to consumers is multilayered and interdependent.” In other words, NYC’s food system relies on other infrastructure systems like power, fuel, and transportation networks, which makes the food system vulnerable to disasters, especially disasters due to our changing climate.

In addition to these systemic interdependencies, “about 60 percent of the city’s produce and about half of the city’s meat and fish passes through Hunts Point for sale and distribution to retailers and consumers.” The food that passes through the Hunts Point Distribution Center in the Bronx “supplies a disproportionate share of the food wholesaling needs of low-income neighborhoods in New York.” This is especially concerning not only because of issues of equity, but also because “close to 28 percent of the site is at risk of flooding.” However, despite this apparent risk, Hunts Point avoided the worst of NYC’s biggest natural disaster in recent memory: Superstorm Sandy. The food system, instead, was impacted mostly on the neighborhood level, as well as systemically. Trucks, the primary way that food enters the NYC food system, were delayed; power outages and floodwaters resulted in loss of food; and transportation breakdowns meant residents of affected neighborhoods were stranded without food.

Superstorm Sandy revealed the many ways in which NYC’s food system remains vulnerable, but also how the system is ultimately inequitable. By centralizing the main food distribution center for most of the food in the city, in a location at risk of flooding, you put the food supply for most New Yorkers, particularly low-income New Yorkers, at risk. Additionally, with only one food distribution center of this size, the city is essentially putting all of its eggs in one basket. In the event of another disaster like Sandy, delivery trucks will have but one location to reroute to, assuming Hunts Point survives the next disaster. But according to predictions in the 2013 report, it might not. By 2050 it is estimated that nearly all of the facilities at Hunts Point will be under water or surrounded by water in the event of a flood, making it extremely difficult to distribute the food throughout the five boroughs.

While Hunts Point avoided major damage during NYC’s last natural disaster, rising global temperatures and lacking environmental policies leave little doubt that the food distribution hub won’t be so lucky in the future. For example, last year’s Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were made much “more destructive than they would have been in previous decades,” according to CNN. Wayne Drash, CNN reporter, writes, “Hurricanes thrive over warm water and strengthen in intensity; oceans have warmed on an average 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, and sea levels have risen about 7 inches during that time. Throw in compound flooding—the combination of rising sea levels from global warming, storm surge and extreme rainfall—and you have the perfect mix for record flooding.” Kerry Emanuel highlights the trend of worsening storms in an op-ed for The Washington Post by writing, “Katrina’s storm surge was the largest in U.S. history. Sandy achieved the largest diameter of any Atlantic hurricane on record. Western North Pacific typhoon Haiyan of 2013 achieved the highest wind speed of any tropical cyclone in global history, a record broken in 2015 by eastern North Pacific Hurricane Patricia. Harvey dumped more rain than any hurricane in the United States, and Irma maintained Category 5 status longer than any storm anywhere on the planet.” This strengthening of storms, particularly along our coasts, should be taken as a signal to act now before the next disaster strikes.

Steps Towards A More Resilient Food System

Several cities across the United States have taken significant steps towards resilient food systems, as outlined in the report “The Resilience of America’s Urban Food Systems: Evidence from Five Cities.” Published in January 2017 by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, the report not only outlines vulnerabilities and disasters that certain cities face, but it highlights the work cities have done to strengthen their local food systems. One city that stands out is Madison, Wisconsin. The report notes that while Madison does not face the same risks as coastal cities like NYC, Madison remains a useful model for a resilient food system. These characteristics include “very few warehouse suppliers located in “at risk” areas, redundant transportation networks that are not highly vulnerable, a food bank that is not vulnerable, and very strong partnerships between state and local governments and private food businesses. In addition, in spite of being the capital of a dairy state, Madison faces minimal food processing vulnerabilities.” Regarding NYC, the most pertinent of these characteristics are the location of the warehouse supplies, the redundant transportation networks, and the strong partnerships between the public and private sectors.

For starters, Madison has a lot more warehouse suppliers than NYC. In Madison, 39 of these are located within the city limits, but 18 out of the 20 suppliers for supermarkets are located about three hours outside of the city. For comparison, NYC’s “Five Borough Food Flow” report from 2016 cites less than 10 food distribution hubs. By having a variety of locations of warehouses for food distribution at varying distances from the city, the local food system stands a greater chance of surviving a disaster and getting food to the residents it serves.

Like NYC, Madison’s food is also mainly delivered and distributed by truck. However, “the difference in Madison is the presence of many alternate truck routes into the city—none of which depend on bridges and tunnels over water.”  While it may be near impossible to totally avoid bridges and tunnels over water, a combination of new distribution centers with varying truck routes may help mitigate the delays NYC experienced in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Another lesson to be learned from Madison is its strong coordination between both the public and private sectors, which includes “coordination and planning . . . at the city, county, and state level.” For example, in the event of a disaster, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection works with Wisconsin Emergency Management to coordinate efforts by “the City of Madison and Dane County Offices of Emergency Management, the Wisconsin Grocers Association, and the Wisconsin Agro-Security Resource Network.” By having plans in place across sectors, in the event of a disaster, the city, state, and businesses are all better equipped to respond and fix problems quickly and efficiently.

By combining these three solutions: more food distribution centers at varying distances from the city, more alternate truck routes, and public-private partnerships, NYC could have a more resilient and equitable food system. However, equity should be just as much of a goal as resilience. In regards to equity, NYC can look to Boston’s efforts “to improve climate change resilience, along with addressing associated economic, racial, and social equity issues.” According to the City of Boston’s website, Cecilia Martinez, executive director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, said, “”Mayor Walsh has embraced the need to achieve racial and economic equity as the central strategy for building citywide resilience to more extreme weather and climate change. Boston is committed to combating climate change, while also tackling the historic racial and economic inequities that make the city’s communities of color and low-income areas the most vulnerable to climate change. This commitment is both ambitious and essential to ensuring a resilient and prosperous future for Boston.” In fact, the City of Boston has a whole department, the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, focused on these issues. According to the city, the department “leads efforts to help Boston plan for and deal with catastrophes and slow-moving disasters — like persistent racial and economic inequality — that have become part of 21st century life.”

Boston has also developed several plans and strategies which have use a holistic lens to improve city life. For example, “Imagine Boston 2030” details initiatives to “expand neighborhoods to find space for housing and jobs, build a resilient waterfront for future generations, and improve access to opportunity to historically under-served neighborhoods.” Boston also released “Resilient Boston, the city’s resilience strategy, after working closely with community organizations and businesses, which “led to a resilience and racial equity lens which includes key questions the City can use to evaluate policies and programs.” By following Boston’s lead in viewing resiliency and equity as connected and interdependent, NYC can create not only a resilient food system, but an equitable one.