A woman in a raincoat pushes her daughter in a shopping cart across a flooded street
A family tries to reach a grocery store in Crisfield, Maryland, after a storm in 2008. Patty Hancock/AP Photo

Storms and rising waters threaten cities’ food, but some municipalities are taking steps to keep shelves stocked and bellies full.

After being submerged during Hurricane Katrina, the Circle Food Store, a black-owned grocery serving New Orleans’s 7th Ward since 1938, remained shuttered for eight years. Eventually, buoyed by federal funding and local grants, it reopened in 2014. Then, in August 2017, the waters rose again.

Standing water climbed as torrents of rain splattered across the city and pumps lacked sufficient generators to power them. The tide swallowed the shelves at Circle Food—the highest point, says owner Dwayne Boudreaux Jr., since Katrina struck a decade ago.

As the store wrung itself dry, customers would be left in a lurch. “Most of my people, they don’t have transportation,” Boudreaux told the news station WWLTV. “This is the only grocery store they go to. They walk here.”

Direct flooding is only the most obvious way in which food access can be demolished during extreme weather. Food arrives in major metropolises every day, often via rail or road. When a storm’s debris clogs these arteries, the conditions can strand residents with limited food supplies, even in a sea of bodegas and convenience stores. Reserves run out quickly: as Kate Cox noted at The New Food Economy, at any given time, the contents of NYC’s food system can only provision residents for four or five days.

As urban centers stare down the threat of increasingly harsh lashings from extreme weather events, coalitions of researchers and city officials are working to answer a crucial question: What does a resilient food system look like?

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the Baltimore Office of Sustainability offer a number of answers in a new report focused on soothing shocks to the food system spurred by various emergencies, from storms to terrorist attacks, electrical outages, and pandemics. Storms could snarl road conditions and delay deliveries. In addition to laying waste to perishable or frozen food, power outages might prevent consumers from using EBT benefits or withdrawing cash to pay for purchases.

Incorporating food systems planning into urban resilience strategies “is a very new thing for many cities,” says Erin Biehl, the report’s lead author and the senior program coordinator in the CLF’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health program. (Boston was the first American city, in 2014, to plan for the repercussions disasters could wreak on the food system.) Plus, “there’s a lot of efforts right now to address future threats especially from climate change, in particular in coastal cities who might be seeing more frequent and intense storms,” Biehl adds. Later this year, Baltimore will fold some of the report’s suggestions into the next update to its comprehensive Disaster Preparedness Plan.

Recommendations from the CLF researchers include establishing and practicing emergency plans, diversifying the sources of incoming food and the routes it takes into the city, and building relationships between local producers and distributors—so that, for instance, urban farmers could help shore up a food pantry if its primary donor organization was temporarily out of commission.

Those suggestions echo a takeaway from a report issued last winter, which found that out of several cities surveyed, Madison, Wisconsin, had a leg up because its major food warehouses are situated outside the city, meaning they wouldn’t be threatened by the same factors that roiled the downtown. Plus, the city developed a network of redundant routes, upping the odds that food would have at least one pathway into the city even if some roads were impassable, according to the research by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

Bouncing back from storms can be especially onerous for smaller operations. In interviews with the CLF researchers, many businesses outlined creative mitigation tactics they are already using, such as packing food in dry ice or refrigerated trucks before it spoils. But leanly staffed food pantries and independent stores may not be able to afford backup generators, or to pay for an all-hands-on-deck clean-up—and that can translate to longer recovery times.

That’s a struggle Boudreaux knows firsthand. As soon as the floor of Circle Food was no longer pitted with puddles, “a lot of people started coming to the door, thinking since the water's gone I can just open the doors and start filling groceries,” Boudreaux says. “But that's not how it goes.” Staff and volunteers bleached shelves, applied mold treatments, and summoned electricians to assess coolers that had been deluged. Perishable items were tossed, and the store’s sales ground to a halt.

Ten years after Katrina, Boudreaux says he still isn’t sure he has a roadmap for fending off future destruction, beyond stockpiling sandbags. “I don't know what they're doing about drainage in the city, and I don't know what I can do to protect myself,” he says. The New Orleans grocer is now looking at upwards of $1 million in fresh damages, Boudreaux says—and the reopening has been delayed because the cooling systems on the roof appear tampered with and stripped of copper. “If I didn't have insurance, I would be dead,” Boudreaux adds. “I wouldn't be able to operate ever again, probably.”

Biehl stresses that food system resiliency also involves confronting present pressures. Even on clear blue days, many families already struggle to access and afford healthy food: 25 percent of Baltimore’s residents are food insecure, and wavering access to healthy food is an issue in every U.S. county. Biehl says that efforts to reduce this here-and-now issue could pay off during future disasters, too, especially for residents who live in food deserts. “If you have neighborhoods where there are more places to get food within walking distance, if there is a disaster that blocks the roads, people could still theoretically get to food sources more easily than they can in an area where there aren’t any stores,” she says.

New York City is also taking steps to protect the lifeline of its food system. The Hunts Point distribution facility, which includes a wholesale produce market sprawling across 60 acres in the Bronx, is the central port that could stall much of the city’s food supply—it supplies more than half of the city’s restaurants. Portions of the facility—especially the meat market—are low-lying and vulnerable to flooding during storm surges; other parts on higher ground could still suffer during power outages. The Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the NYCEDC are funneling a $45 million HUD Community Development Block Grant for disaster recovery to further a handful of proposals and a series of community workshops about local resilience and flood preparedness in Hunts Point.

Food businesses haven’t often been deemed essential services in emergencies, “which can delay restoration of infrastructure and utility services to stores and prolong closures,” the CLF researchers note. The team suggests designating critical food providers in various neighborhoods, and calls on officials to fast-track road clearing and electrical restoration to those locations with the goal of getting places up and running—and food into bellies—as quickly as possible.

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