This weekend I went to NYC for a bachelorette party and ate my way through Manhattan. From a veggie tzatziki quinoa burger, to poached eggs in tomato sauce with rosemary homefries, to a fermented plum and Japanese basil roll, to shakshuka, I was living my best life.
During all of this eating, I began to wonder how the food supply chain works in NYC. There seems to be a lot of potential obstacles to timely, dependable food deliveries; not only is the city an island, but its one chock full of traffic, construction, and lots and lots of people.
I wonder how much of the food supply chain is really “local”, whether that might mean withing the city limits or the state line. I also wondered if there were unique costs to food distribution to the city – such as tolls, traffic idling time, etc.
There seems to be an abundance of fresh produce along the streets. I didn’t get a chance to take pictures, but there were dozens of bodegas selling five bananas for $1, quarts of raspberries for $2, and avocados for 50 cents. Do those bodega owners transport their own food, or are they part of a larger franchise, and supplied by larger transport trucks.
In the search to find answers for some of these questions, I stumbled on a 93 page, white paper of sorts regarding NYC’s food supply chain and distribution. It was put together by Columbia University, for the Mayor’s Office in 2010.
I didn’t get a chance to read all of it, but it seemed like a very comprehensive review. They looked at the existing knowledge on the city’s food system, and then noted key areas where they lacked accessible, organized data. They looked at the food supply through a freight analysis framework as well as how much food is brought to feed the cities rising population (at 2008, NYC’s population was over 8 million). They also looked specifically at major consumption endpoints, i.e., food retail, food service, schools and universities by conducting interviews with key players (e.g., Wholefoods, McDonalds, and Columbia University).
To summarize, the major takeaways of the study were that there were more similarities among the diverse points of consumption in the city than differences. For example, even though there are large disparities in size of retailers and other institutions, most of the food comes from a small number of sources. I’m not certain if this applies directly to the bodegas I saw selling produce, but it would imply they’re likely to get their bananas from the same place WholeFoods does. One big outlier this finding was quality-focused restaurants and specialty stores. They, instead, buy from a wide spectrum of suppliers, patronizing those who have the highest quality items in lieu of affordability and convenience.
Another interesting finding was that distribution, while consistent, is varied in terms of supplier or distributor. So, in other words, a food retailer would work mostly with middlemen to streamline purchases and deliveries; but in the food service sector distributors deliver directly to the restaurants. I wonder if this difference stems from the restaurants higher priority for fresh, timely food. I think it would be more of an issue if a restaurants can’t create a dish listed on a menu, then if a supermarkets ran out of a particular item.
Finally, another key takeaway was about food waste. Not surprisingly, large chains generated the most waste, compared to smaller restaurants and retailers. Many entities work actively to reduce their food waste though. The food service industry was known for tracking demand as their method. Others, like the Hunts Point Distribution Center use their waste to create pet food.
Though the policy paper was rather dated, I found what I was able to read fascinating. It makes me want to look if other cities have put as much research into analyzing their own food chain. I hopefully, will have time to read the entire document later.
As I began this week’s reading I was really struck by the term, “transcommunality”, a term coined by John Brown Childs (a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz), which references the constructive and developmental interaction among diverse communities which through hared political action, flows increased communication, mutual respect, and understanding.
This term seems to encapsulate the missing link in most food justice programs. While the urban CSAs, community gardens, and “good-neighbor” bodega and corner store programs seem to be for the benefit of the low-income, largely black communities they serve, they lack a connection to those exact communities and seem to reject the notion of a partnership. As Julie Guthman writes, these programs are “…the effect of white desire to to enroll black people in a particular set of food practices,” and that many of the champions of these food justice programs have decided they know whats in the best interest of the communities they “serve.” I also identify with Guthman’s thoughts that many writers (herself included) feel almost compelled to write positive reviews of these types of program; I myself am having trouble with categorizing any food justice movement as detached, ignorant, or racist. And yet, these programs have continued to falter and die off shortly after inception – supermarkets have failed to attract customers, CSA programs have lacked subscribers, and non-profit food education classes have lacked attendees. All of this speaks to a serious misstep in the food justice movement.