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New York’s Food Future

Nathan Forster May 3, 2012

Check out all the Indy Food Coverage from Issue 176:

Behind glossy menus, chalkboard specials and supermarket produce displays, a steady stream of planes, trains and tractor trailers supply wholesale, retail and direct markets that feed 8 million New York City residents and nearly 20 million in the greater New York metropolitan region.

Hunts Point Terminal Market in the South Bronx is the world’s largest wholesale market. This 329-acre site supplies 60 percent of New York’s $30 billion annual food market. The city also boasts the largest farmers market system in America and contains more than 600 community gardens. Supporting these regional agriculture systems are not-for-profit organizations and mission-driven companies that help regional farmers and food processors access new markets through innovative business partnerships.

The complexity of New York City’s huge urban food environment is powered by thousands of restaurants, bodegas, street vendors, specialty grocers, ethnic markets and food carts, and the country’s largest school feeding system serving nearly a million meals a day, as well as food banks, soup kitchens and pantries that serve over a half-million meals a day.

Best recent efforts to identify the full range of New York’s food supply, such as a recent study by Columbia University, came to this conclusion: nobody knows where all of New York’s food comes from. And yet the food system is changing, perhaps even transforming, in fundamental ways.

Interrelated

Local, regional, national and international food systems all interrelate in New York City. In 2012, the food landscapes that provide New York’s local and regional food supply are becoming more diverse, more integrated and more significant in terms of their output. This rise in diversity and integration can be seen in places like the “black dirt” region in Orange County, 50 miles northwest of the city, where a new generation of young farmers is finding economic viability by accessing new markets through opportunities provided by food, health and agriculture policies.

Many city-based organizations facilitate policy implementation through programs designed to provide technical assistance, farming education and business planning support to family farms. In turn, farmers sell their products first through direct retail markets and Community Supported Agriculture (see sidebar, page 9), then through small-scale wholesale opportunities. It is common for farmers to supply a member CSA, participate in five to 15 retail markets in New York City or urban centers, and in the fall specialize in certain storage or harvest crops for wholesale accounts. What sets these farmers apart from many traditional farmers is their willingness to grow to meet retail market requirements.

It’s not just the new guys that are adapting to the new regional food system markets. Take the Hoeffners, for instance. They run a fourth-generation family farm in Montgomery, N.Y., that has supplied the city with wholesale produce for decades. Today’s wholesale marketing, however, is conducted primarily over the phone or the internet. That coupled with ever changing food packaging, safety, and marketplace regulations puts the traditional wholesale family farms of New York and adjacent states on the margins of wholesale agriculture business. Now, Jack Hoeffner and his family have found a different way to engage in the New York food system. Hoeffner Farms is a registered member of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which provides low-income families with checks that are used to buy food at farmers markets. Through partnerships with community organizations, the Hoeffners are able to get their food to the communities that need it most and receive fair prices for their quality products. This business alone now represents a large portion of the farm’s wholesale accounts.

Global Footprint

From New York’s early history, its immense consumer demand has had a global food footprint. But a shift in consumer preferences has led to a rapidly growing local food movement with profound implications for the future of New York City’s food supply and the food and farming economies of the Northeast, the country and the world. In the 1990s, before the explosive growth of restaurant and retail store interest in local foods, only the farmers markets, early CSAs and a few stores carried “local.”

Throughout the five boroughs, community and rooftop gardens, local food enterprises and farmers markets have been multiplying in nearly viral fashion. Links between neighborhoods and near-urban farms through farmers markets and CSA programs have helped New Yorkers connect with regional farmers. These relationships proved providential in relief funds raised for beleaguered farms hit by flooding after Tropical Storm Irene last year.

The contribution of urban gardens and farms to the food supply of a large city like New York may seem insignificant, but the importance of urban farming, gardening and environmental education lies in its role in creating the local food culture that will sustain a local food system.

In Bushwick, Brooklyn, a community with high levels of poverty and limited food options, EcoStation:NY has begun to change how this community of New Yorkers buys, eats, and identifies with food. The Bushwick Campus Farm involves children in school gardens and cooking classes, helping them understand how food gets from the farm to the dinner table. The families of the students working in the gardens come out to the retail farmers market to buy locally grown produce and gain a deeper understanding of what their children are learning. Lastly, a rooftop farm supplies local restaurants with herbs and vegetables.

Changing Public Policy

While community-based initiatives like EcoStation:NY help revive the romance of freshly prepared, recently harvested food, public policy needs to be integrated at city, state and federal levels to support a diverse and resilient food economy. The debate should not be about local vs. non-local food, but about how to better integrate the two, supporting a food environment that is a continuum between urban and rural landscapes. Besides diversifying the city’s food supply, the regional food economy creates jobs and retains businesses while enhancing the environment.

The region’s farmers, distributors and processors have begun to respond to the rising demand for healthy affordable and local food coming from consumers, restaurants, markets, schools and institutions. The demand for locally and regionally produced foods is estimated to be a quarter of the $30 billion New York City food market, based on studies for redevelopment of Hunts Point Produce Market and increasing regional food in the city’s school system. The local and regional food economy is also bringing new public and private investment, business models and attention from local, state and federal agencies and elected officials.

Until recently, the demand for more local food had not been incorporated into the city’s economic development and planning policies. That has all changed. Starting with the City Council’s FoodWorks blueprint for New York’s food system and the addition of food to PlaNYC, the city’s long-term sustainability plan, the future of the city’s food and nutrition security are a fixture in the city’s planning for the future.

Many other cities in the United States and around the world are coming to realize that the economic and climate-related vulnerability of food supply necessitates stronger regional linkages that mutually benefit urban and rural areas. Part of the response of cities, including New York, is the engagement of new food policy and planning professionals so city officials can become better managers of their food supply.

HUNGER IN NYC

However, the transformation of the food supply for cities is not just about markets, planning and economic development. One out of six New Yorkers is enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) and over 80 percent of New York school children are eligible for federally-subsidized school meals. Hunger and poverty are realities for millions of New Yorkers. In the poorest neighborhoods access to healthy affordable food is most lacking and chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes are the most epidemic.

New York’s food justice movement seeks to rebuild food environments neighborhood by neighborhood, with access to food from community gardens and farmers markets, more healthy foods in existing and new markets and links to regional farms. It is a powerful grassroots movement aimed at social development and equity through rebuilding the food system from the bottom up, and mirrors similar movements across the country.

The pressure of food system volatility in larger markets and supply chains, along with the demand for more access to healthy food in underserved markets (sometimes called “food deserts”), are changing the politics of food, which is in turn transforming food policy. The food system is shaped by local, state, federal and even international policy in ways that are not necessarily obvious.

Whether low-income families can use their SNAP or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits for fresh local food in farmers markets, whether there are government resources for innovative business models and food hubs or whether farming practices preserve water and soil quality — policy can either help or hinder. Producers and consumers have begun to mobilize for policies and programs that benefit consumers and farmers, in both urban and rural areas.

Creative approaches that combine markets for small or larger farmers, integrate urban and rural food environments and address the needs of underserved urban and rural communities do exist, but need scaling up and resources.

With greater engagement of citizens, officials and organizations across the city and region, the future of New York City’s food supply may continue to change in positive ways and in a generation, be healthier, more regionally based and more sustainable. Whether it is the food we eat, the crops we plant, the animals we raise, the markets we cultivate or the policies we promote, no choice is too small to make a big difference in the future of our food system.


What Is a CSA?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) allows city residents to have direct access to fresh, high- quality produce. When you become a member of a CSA, you’re purchasing a “share” of vegetables from a regional farmer. Weekly or bi-weekly, from June until October or November, your farmer will deliver that share of produce to a convenient drop-off location in your neighborhood for members to pick up.

CSA members pay for an entire season of produce upfront (typically $400-$600). This early bulk payment enables your farmer to plan for the season, purchase new seeds, make equipment repairs and more. CSA members share in the harvest — when there is a good growing season, everyone benefits. When the season is not so good, members shoulder the risk.

Shares usually include seven to 10 types of vegetables, enough for a family of two to three people. Most CSAs also offer half shares for smaller households or busy New Yorkers who frequently eat out. The number of CSAs in New York City has grown from one in the mid-1990s to more than 100 today.

Many CSAs also offer the option of other produce from local farms. For a few extra dollars a week, in addition to your vegetables, you can add fruit, eggs, meat and even flowers to your order.

Most CSAs have a variety of payment plans to allow members flexibility in paying for their shares. Some CSAs can arrange payments in installments, accept food stamps, offer sliding scale fees and provide scholarship shares.

Neighborhood CSA groups are run by members. A rotating core group of volunteers take on much of the administrative management of the CSA. This can include signing up new members, collecting members payments, running the distribution site and planning community-building or educational events. This frees up the farmers to focus on growing and delivering the vegetables.

To find out more about CSAs in New York City, see justfood.org

This article was adapted from justfood.org and sustainabletable.org.


Food Co-ops in the City

Food co-ops are member-owned and operated businesses that allow participants to purchase organic or natural foods at a lower cost in exchange for their time commitments. For many members, their co-ops’ egalitarianism and democratic decision-making are as important as the discounts on the organic Basmati rice. Here are four storefront co-ops currently active in New York City:

Fourth Street Co-op
58 E. 4th St., Manhattan
Located on an East Village block that includes several Off-Off Broadway theaters, this cozy little co-op has managed to survive despite Whole Foods moving in a few blocks away, thanks to a loyal membership that values both the store’s quality food and its spirit of community. Members who work weekly shifts receive  15-20 percent discounts while non-members are allowed to shop as well.

Park Slope Food Co-op
782 Union St., Brooklyn
Founded in 1973, Park Slope is the colossus of food co-ops with 16,000 members and $45 million in annual sales. It’s known for its great selection and low prices, but only members can shop here. To remain in good standing, each member must report for her or his nearly three-hour work shift once every four weeks or risk losing shopping privileges.

Flatbush Food Co-op
1415 Cortelyou Rd., Brooklyn
Launched in 1976 as a buying club by early aficionados of organic foods, the Flatbush Food Co-op has blossomed into a full-blown storefront over the past three decades, serving residents of Flatbush, Ditmas Park and Kensington.  

Greene Hill Food Co-op
18 Putnam Ave., Brooklyn
Greene Hill is the new kid on the block having just opened in December. Members are required to work a shift every four weeks but Greene Hill is not as strict (so far!) about enforcing its work mandate, much to the relief of some of its newer members who migrated over from the Park Slope Food Co-op. Greene Hill has faced charges of elitism since the New York Times reported in March that only 3.8 percent of the co-op’s 800 members are low-income residents.