New York’s Food Distribution Networks Brace for an Unprecedented Threat

‘Fighting the last war’

The last time New York’s food supply lines were under major threat was in 2012, in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy. The storm narrowly missed the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx, the largest food distribution center of its kind in the United States. It veered south and west, flooding grocery stores and knocking out power for two million residents.

Blacked-out supermarkets had to dispose of rotting food. Bridges and tunnels were closed off to new deliveries. From West Virginia to Pennsylvania, the food supply system was virtually shut down. Some supermarket chains needed nearly two weeks to resume full operation; in the Far Rockaways and some other flooded neighborhoods, it took months.

In the years after that storm, infrastructure initiatives have fortified Hunts Point, which is in a hazardous flood zone, and reduced the food supply chain’s sensitivity to blackouts. But those improvements, while welcome, have not necessarily made New York more resilient for a threat like the coronavirus.

It’s easier to imagine a disaster that has already happened than to try to imagine a new one. Professionals in the field describe this cognitive bias as “fighting the last war.” Sandy was a regional, one-time weather event — in some sense, the inverse of the coronavirus, which is global and long-term.

A pandemic is fundamentally unlike a major storm, in that infrastructure components like roads, bridges and tunnels remain intact. This time, it’s people that are compromised.

Instead of floods and power failures, city officials and the executives in charge of food distribution organizations are bracing for extended disruptions to the supply of paid and volunteer labor, at the same time that they expect an influx of ill and unemployed people into an emergency system built for congregated, not socially distanced, feeding.

Mr. Rapaport said he was losing volunteers by March 11, when New York City had only 48 confirmed cases of the virus. (As of March 17, the number was 814.) He was able to process only bananas and melons that day, he said, because he didn’t have the right people to break down bulk, 50-pound containers of other foods.

Stephen Grimaldi, the executive director of Common Pantry, a poverty-reduction organization with locations in the South Bronx and East Harlem that served 6.5 million meals last year, said that a loss of volunteer labor was his biggest concern. “We saw it coming, so we were out ahead of it in the sense that we went to prepackaged food, prepackaged bags,” he said.

Emergency food distribution experts say the virus exposes underlying weaknesses in the social safety net — that it’s not a matter only of having enough supply to feed the city, but of residents having enough money to afford groceries. “Solving hunger with food is, of course, important,” said Ben Kerrick, a senior consultant at KK & P, a food system consultancy. “But this exposes that it’s not just, and not even primarily, a food problem. It’s a financial resources problem.”

‘That can domino in a very nasty way’

For-profit food purveyors are also worried they will experience labor and revenue disruption.

“Longer term, we rely on migratory workers to come across the border under government visitation programs to grow our fruit,” said Brian Nicholson, the president and chief executive of Red Jacket Orchards, an upstate label that makes juice and apple products stocked at bodegas and supermarkets across the city. “We either hit our windows and we produce the food in the ground in the crop season that we can, or we miss the crop season. There’s no turning back time, there’s no turning back weather. We don’t dictate that schedule, it’s dictated to us.”

According to the “Five Borough Food Flow” report, 38 percent of food by volume in the city is distributed by independent restaurants and cafes. The government ordered such businesses to close by 9 a.m. on March 17, although they are still permitted to serve takeout and make deliveries.

In the medium term, groceries, bodegas and other food sellers will be able to adjust, picking up market share and stocking their shelves with redirected products. But as with any major business shift, some types of food producers will fare better than others, and there will be waste and market dislocation.

“So maybe you’re not going to worry about stocking all 50 types of ice creams,” said Daniel McMurtrie, the founder and C.E.O. of Tyro Capital Management, an investment firm with a focus on supply chains. “But you’re going to make sure you have whatever your three or four most-sold products are. You’re going to make sure you have toilet paper. You’re going to make sure you have flour, eggs, those types of things.”

According to a 2019 study conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School and the National Employment Law Project, the city’s restaurant industry employs 250,000 people. Mass layoffs are possible in the sector.

Mr. McMurtrie said he worried about a “demand-side recession,” where spending declines because incomes decline. “That can domino in a very nasty way,” he said.

On Monday, New York’s Labor Department website was flooded with new unemployment claim inquiries, receiving 8,758 calls by noon — three times more than what it handled the week before, according to a department spokeswoman.

With rising unemployment, food experts worry about rapidly increasing numbers of city residents needing to draw on the emergency feeding system — the already existing network of pantries, soup kitchens and city feeding programs — just as it enters into a period of enormous stress.

To respond to demand, Ms. MacKenzie said the city hadn’t ruled out anything: public-private partnerships with online retailers already logistically positioned to deliver; staggered, and therefore socially distant, feeding schedules for schoolchildren and others in need; requests for assistance from FEMA and the National Guard. Whatever works.

“Every day is different,” said Mr. Rapaport, in his office at Masbia. “Nothing is predictable.”

“It’s also important, if people are quarantined, that they don’t go insane, right?” he added, packing up a box. “Even if you put in a little box of cake mix, it’s cool. You’re staying at home. Make your house smell good. You know what I mean?”

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