Four Years After Hurricane Sandy, New York City’s Food Supply Remains Vulnerable

At 9 AM on a crisp October morning, Dan Hrscko and Jim Byrne of Tamarack Hollow Farms make their first sales at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket Farmers Market. Their stand is stocked with fresh greens ranging from bales of kale to bundles of radicchio. They have been up since before sunrise — Tamarack Farms, in Plainfield, Vermont, is about a five-hour drive from Lower Manhattan.

Tamarack Farms is one of sixty-eight stands in business in Union Square. However, this is a drop from peak season. In the summertime, as many as 140 farmers come to Lower Manhattan to sell their produce. As temperatures drop and storm season hits, fewer farmers will come to New York City to sell their produce.

“I’m gonna stay home in Vermont with the food,” said Hrscko about the lowering temperatures.

Luckily for New Yorkers, Vermont is not their sole source for food when winter season begins. The Bronx is home to Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (HPFDC) which houses 70 percent of all the city’s wholesale food facilities. With food coming from all over the world, these wholesale distributors will stock the five Trader Joe’s, six Westside Markets, nine D’Agostino’s, ten Whole Foods, 31 Gristedes, and 12,000 independently-owned bodegas and small grocery stores dotted around the city.

However, according to a forthcoming publication from the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), a nonprofit research and advisory organization, the fact that New York City’s food retail landscape is dominated by independently-owned bodegas and small grocery stores makes its food supply chain more vulnerable to natural disaster disruption, especially during storm season. This is because HPDFDC, the location of three-quarters of the city’s wholesale distributors which supply those 12,000 stores, is a flood risk. Surrounded by the East and Bronx Rivers on three sides, 28 percent of HPFDC is located on a flood plain.

HPFDC, at 329-acre facility on the Bronx peninsula, is the world’s largest food distribution center. It contains over two hundred wholesalers. The three largest wholesale markets — the Hunts Point Produce Market, Hunts Point Cooperative Market (or the meat market), and the New Fulton Fish Market — process 50 percent of New York City’s meat and seafood and 60 percent of produce before arriving in grocery stores.

In the ICIC report, the researchers say small, independently-owned grocery stores in New York City have less storage space, which in turn leads to a heavier reliance on more frequent truck deliveries from wholesale distributors at a scale that is unique to New York City.

“When you talk about a store in Manhattan, whether it’s small or a bigger brand name, they just don’t have a lot of space,” said Dan Vache, the Vice President of Supply Chain Management for the United Fresh Produce Association. “This means they’re ordering just what they need while trying to turn their inventory as quickly as possible. They’re the least likely to have a backup food bank.”

The ICIC report also wrote that if Hurricane Sandy in 2012 had arrived in high tide or taken a different path, it could have flooded Hunts Point. “Multiple experts suggested that Hunts Point was spared from damage as a matter of luck and recognized its location as a significant vulnerability,” they wrote.

According to a 2015 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a combination of rising sea levels and stronger tropical cyclones will put New York City at a higher risk for coastal floods. In the study, researchers measured average flood heights in New York City from 850 to 1800 — before human-related climate change — as well as from 1970 to 2005. They measured a flood height increase of four feet as well as an increase in tropical cyclones between the two time periods.

“We’re seeing an increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters so it becomes even more imperative for us to study this,” said Kim Zeuli, Senior Vice President and Director of the Research and Advisory Practice at ICIC and one of the authors of the study.

The City has recognized the facility’s physical vulnerabilities and is in the process of conducting a flood risk reduction feasibility study, according to Stephanie Baez, Vice President of Public Affairs at New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).

More immediate measures have been taken as well. Earlier this month sandbags were placed around the electrical generators that power refrigeration in the wholesale meat market facilities in HPFDC to protect from flooding, Baez confirmed.

Another food supply vulnerability is around transportation infrastructure. According to the ICIC report, 45 percent of the truck traffic over the George Washington Bridge carries food. During Hurricane Sandy, several tunnels and bridges including the George Washington Bridge were closed, which disrupted food deliveries.

“At the end of the day you’re on an island and [Hurricane] Sandy was New York City’s wake-up call,” said Zeuli. “You have to cross bridges and tunnels to get into Manhattan. If you have a hurricane, those are going to get wiped out.”

The City is recognizing all of HPFDC’s vulnerabilities. In addition to the flood risk reduction feasibility study, the city is also in the process of implementing a ten-year plan to invest $150 million into the Hunts Point facility to make it resilient to multiple types of threats. This includes flooding, system-wide outages and extreme head, said Baez.

As for transportation, others provide a more forward-looking solutions. “Drones could be a new way of delivery,” said Vache.

A signpost for the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, located in the Bronx peninsula. It is surrounded by the East and Bronx Rivers on three sides. 28 percent of the facilities are in flood plain zone. It is also estimated that $2 billion dollars of transactions is processed in Hunts Point Distribution Center every year.
Inside the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, which contains the largest wholesale meat and fish markets in New York City. Over fifty percent of the city’s meat and seafood gets processed here.
Dan Hrscko and Jim Byrne, here at the Union Square Greenmarket Farmers Market, have been working for Tamarack Hollow Farms for six and three years, respectively. During peak farmers market season in the summertime, they will make the five-hour journey from the farm in Plainfield, Vermont to Lower Manhattan up to three times a week.
A customer picks up a bushel of carrots from the S&SO Produce Farms booth at the Union Square Greenmarket Farmers Market.
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