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Why New York City and San Francisco are Focused on Local Food Manufacturing and Distribution

Written by Kimberly Etingoff

Record amounts of snow have depleted Boston-area grocery shelves of many food items in recent weeks. Snow-clogged streets and loading docks have resulted in delayed or erratic deliveries, making it difficult for grocery stores to replenish their stocks. In light of these recent events and the fear of future natural disasters, some cities, such as Boston, are giving increased attention to food as part of their resilience planning. Food resilience is concerned with how a community’s food system would recover from a shock such as a natural disaster. A vulnerable or disrupted food processing and distribution industry directly impacts food resilience and inhibits a community’s ability to return to normal functions.

ICIC is currently undertaking a study in partnership with the City of Boston that analyzes food system vulnerabilities and lessons learned in several North American cities as well as in Boston itself. Two cities that have realized the critical nature of food processing and distribution sectors to food resilience are New York City and San Francisco. In these cities, government, businesses and non-profit organizations are working together to address vulnerabilities and enhance their cities’ resilience.

In New York City, the food system revolves around the Hunts Point Distribution Center. Hunts Point distributes food from points across the globe to thousands of New York City metropolitan area grocery and convenience stores, wholesalers, restaurants, and emergency feeding programs. The 329-acre facility is made up of the Terminal Produce Market, the New Fulton Fish Market, the Cooperative Market, and private companies. It supports over 25,000 jobs and $3 billion in economic activity each year. Sixty percent of produce and half of meat and fish supplies pass through Hunts Point on its way into New York City.

Hunts Point was spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s effects in October of 2012, but mostly escaped as a matter of luck. It is located on the shores of the Bronx and East Rivers, making it vulnerable to flooding and energy disruption, which could be catastrophic for the region’s food availability. Although the timing of Sandy kept flooding to a minimum and Hunts Point functioning, the City is taking action to make it more resilient to potential future disasters.

The Hunts Point LifeLines project promises to address the distribution center’s resilience directly. The City of New York received $20 million from Rebuild by Design, a competition sponsored by HUD and The Rockefeller Foundation, and contributed an additional $25 million in City funds for a feasibility study and pilot project related to LifeLines. The project is based on a proposal by OLIN (a landscape design studio) and PennDesign (University of Pennsylvania’s design school) and is structured around the concept of creating a working waterfront, working community, and working ecology. The project understands Hunts Point’s resilience holistically, and includes elements such as a levee, green roofs, a new marine transfer station for food deliveries, air quality improvements, and new energy infrastructure to preserve the cold chain in the event of wide-spread power outages. Project partners estimate LifeLines will positively impact the more than 22 million people Hunts Point feeds regionally. The project will help maintain a resilient food supply even in the face of flooding and rising sea levels, improving infrastructure of a key part of the food distribution system.

Meanwhile, San Francisco has been focusing on the resilience of both the food processing and manufacturing sectors. The city’s most immediate concern is the risk of a major earthquake, in addition to climate-related disasters such as sea level rise and coastal storms. Much of its food processing and distribution industry faces many related risks like outdated infrastructure vulnerable to earthquakes and location on high-risk liquefaction zones. Other challenges to a resilient industry include high real estate costs and a shrinking industrial zone.

A partnership between the San Francisco Planning Department, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the local non-profit SPUR worked to shed more light on manufacturing and distribution resilience issues, collecting and analyzing data in a recent study titled  Makers and Movers Economic Cluster Study: Recommendations for San Francisco’s Food and Beverage Manufacturers and Distributors. The study identifies many of the vulnerabilities above, and makes a series of recommendations to provide a sustainable environment for new and established food and beverage businesses. Recommendations focus on strategies to create affordable industrial space, advance technical assistance and business support, aid in workforce development, and improve transportation access for industry workers.

The City of San Francisco is also taking action to increase food system resilience through its support of the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, a major regional food distribution center. A new 60-year lease with the City and a multi-million reinvestment project is helping the Market remain viable in its current location in San Francisco’s industrial east side. Included in the project is a recently-opened facility which complies with current earthquake codes, and which provides the market with expanded operational capacity.

San Francisco and New York City highlight activities in just two cities focused on food resilience. Other cities taking a proactive approach include Toronto, which was recently named the world’s most resilient city by the Grosvenor Group, and Seattle, which has invested in food disaster preparedness and recovery and produced food systems policy report focused partly on resilience. And now we can add Boston to the list as a national leader in strengthening local food systems. ICIC’s work with the City of Boston will help identify key food system vulnerabilities and provide a roadmap to increased food resilience.


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