New York's Looming Food Disaster

Hurricane Sandy exposed striking vulnerabilities in the city's supply chains.

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Reuters

In New York City, locating a bite to eat is rarely a difficult task. The city is a food paradise or, depending on your mood, a place of overwhelming glut.

But when Superstorm Sandy pummeled New York last fall, it revealed the terrifying potential for sudden food shortages. Flooded stores like Red Hook’s Fairway Market were forced to haul off loads of ruined produce, while persistent power outages and scant fuel supplies turned the banality of restocking into a nightmare for stores across the city. For markets nestled in lower Manhattan, the physical challenges were most grave. One bridge or tunnel shutdown might delay countless deliveries—amid disaster, a terrifying notion for stores like Met FoodMarkets in SoHo. "They only can get here if they can get here," says Met manager Franklin Fernandez.

Smaller stores like Met have limited storage capacity, and often get cleared out in the days before an event like Sandy. Disturbingly, that supply headache can extend long past the immediate post-storm period. For Met, it took nearly two weeks to restore a working supply chain, Fernandez says.

Sandy is not New Yorkers' first glimpse of potential disaster. The massive blackout of 1977 (and the subsequent looting), the great northeastern blackout of 2003, and Hurricane Irene in 2011 all caused similar crises.

This recurrence of disaster is why it’s so disturbing that city officials have little concrete data on how reliant their food system is on the private food distribution industry, and whether society is teetering a mere "nine meals away from revolution" (an ominous old expression that appeared in The Atlantic all the way back in 1945). Worse yet, they have little understanding of the logistical changes that have revolutionized how companies warehouse and distribute the food on which New Yorkers depend.

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To grasp the basics, take a walk along the High Line. It’s an urban revivalist’s fever dream, an "elevated linear park" that elegantly repurposes the rusted vestiges of New York’s industrial past. The 19-block promenade of concrete, glass, and steel, boasts colorful street performers, funky-cute frog sculptures, carefully manicured gardens, and food stands serving up Blue Bottle Coffee.

It’s here, on the vestiges of that industrial past—the businesses the High Line used to serve, and what used to travel across its rails—that we should focus. Because long before the Meat Packing District was known for its thriving nightlife, it was the central stage in the story of food in New York City.

As recently as the early 1980s, the Meat Packing District was almost entirely industrial, crowded with food warehouses and processing centers like the packing plant at the 14th Street Passage (now a retail and office building), the industrial baking complex between 15th and 16th (now the Chelsea Market), and the Merchants Refrigerating Company Warehouse at West 16th Street (now shared by U.S. government agencies and Manhattan Mini-Storage). Every day, thousands of trailerloads of produce, poultry, and dairy products rumbled into these and other storage and processing facilities (the High Line’s last haul in 1980 was a load of frozen turkeys).

Today? Almost all of this food is warehoused sometimes more than 100 miles away, in places like Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and in vastly bigger and more concentrated units. What was here, in the middle of Manhattan, is now there.

And: as the Huffington Post reported in the aftermath of Sandy, distance—and bridges and tunnels—matter. One reason for the food shortages after the storm was that thousands of trucks of food in the region were marooned on roads and at warehouses, thanks to myriad road closures.

Until relatively recently, most of the food that wound up in New Yorkers’ stomachs came from the farms of upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Even Brooklyn and Queens helped out, for a long while registering as the nation’s two biggest vegetable-producing counties.

When that locally grown food got to New York, it tended to stay around longer, sitting in warehouses for perhaps weeks at a time.

Now, New Yorkers rely chiefly on food from across the country, or the other side of the world. And to complicate matters, in recent decades the big companies that run these systems have radically altered how they manage the flow of this food through their supply chains. Most of the private companies that now dominate the distribution of food in America, like Walmart and Sysco, keep much smaller inventories than in years past, sized to meet immediate demand under stable conditions—a strategy known as "just-in-time." Analysts, in fact, expect Sysco—a major presence in the New York region—to continue cutting down an already super-lean supply chain operation.

In other words, the food on New York’s shelves flows through supply lines that stretch much further than ever before. And there’s a lot less of it along the way.

Chris Gopal, vice president of the Global Supply Chain Management Practice at Unisys, says these changes are all part of a recent shift in the industry toward "leaner" supply chains. During normal operations, he says, such systems allow big companies to save a few pennies. But these systems don’t always work well under stress. "'Just-in-time' deliveries and smaller in-store inventory have made many supply chains more vulnerable to infrastructure and supply disruptions," Gopal says—like, for instance a Sandy-sized storm.

Jennifer McEntire, senior director of the food safety practice at Leavitt Partners, adds that there is "absolutely" a danger in going too lean in a consolidated, globalized food system. "Catastrophes anywhere in the world can have a major impact on our food supply here in the United States."

Julio and Belinda Ramos, who were hit with a power outage, hold their eight-year-old son Charles as they stand in line to pick up food supplies at a grocery store after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)



Compounding the food problem, Sandy’s storm surge flooded oil refineries, while power outages idled numerous pipelines and storage depots. In the days after, two-thirds of all service stations in the region couldn’t pump gas, resulting in long lines and even a few fistfights. These breakdowns in the gas supply reverberated into the food system. If you can’t gas up your trucks, how do you re-stock your shelves?

In recent years, fuel supply has also only gotten leaner, starting with the 2011 closures of facilities operated by ConocoPhillips and Sunoco. In February, Hess shuttered its Port Reading, New Jersey, facility, and is now looking to sell off its remaining terminals that service the East Coast. Analysts also expect a fresh batch of refinery closures in Europe this year—10 percent of plants there, by some estimates—on the heels of plummeting demand. According to the Energy Information Administration, these shutdowns will increase the East Coast’s dependence on supplies from even farther away, further straining existing transit and storage capabilities.

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As systemic risk expert Charles Perrow has written in books such as The Next Catastrophe, private companies aren’t likely to step up on their own. Market economies are reluctant to bear the costs of redundancy and stockpiling—the incentive to plan for disaster, it seems, isn’t apparent.

More alarming: in June, New York City officials released a lengthy report reviewing their response to Sandy. It received near-universal praise, but failed to account for the revolutionary effects of private supply chain consolidation and just-in-time practices. Instead, it notes that a more comprehensive study of food supply vulnerability is needed, but is contingent on available funding.

Governments must set new rules ensuring that there’s always enough food flowing through a resilient distribution network. Because allowing supply chains to break down isn’t just bad public policy—for private companies, failing to invest with an eye towards eventual calamity is just bad business.

Top image: A worker stocks shelves at a temporary CVS store in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York. CVS has set up a temporary store in the parking lot of a CVS location that had been damaged in Hurricane Sandy. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Siddhartha Mahanta is a writer based in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, National Journal, and Salon.