Increasing the Resilience of NYC’s Food System to Climate Change

New York, like many large cities, has a food system that depends on concentrated distribution channels and legacy infrastructures that are all prone to climate-related disruption. In advance of the People’s Climate March on September 21st, I wanted to reflect on the vulnerabilities of New York City’s food system to climate change-induced weather events, and how municipal policies can help us to mitigate and adapt to those vulnerabilities. Some statistics compiled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy for PlaNYC: A Stronger, More Resilient New York, illustrate the nature of the problem:

  • Nearly 95% of the 5.7 million tons of food that enters the city is transported by truck, mostly over the George Washington Bridge;
  • About 60% of the city’s produce and half of its meat and fish pass through the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, North America’s largest wholesale food market, in the South Bronx. Nearly a third of the market is at risk of flooding because it is within the 100-year floodplain (and by the end of the century, New York City may experience a 100-year flood every 10 to 22 years).
  • At the retail end of the supply chain, 700 food markets are in a 100-year floodplain, and these are mostly smaller stores serving low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods that lack other retail options.
  • The four communities most at-risk of flooding — Coney Island, the Rockaways, Throgs Neck/Coop City, and East Harlem — will have 75% of their food retail floor area in a floodplain by the 2050s – and all four communities have populations with lower than average incomes.
  • Even the national distributors and large supermarket chains that have their own distribution centers and supply chains are not invulnerable, as their trucks travel the same roads that flood and rely on fuels that are supplied through the same vulnerable distribution systems as everyone else.

Conventional food systems are tightly bound together with other vulnerable urban systems like transportation, electricity, water, wastewater, financial systems, social systems and physical infrastructure. For example, in a system depending on electricity for refrigeration and some food preparation, power failures resulting from storms or heat-induced blackouts are also food system failures. When a city has one fifth of its population dependent on SNAP benefits, as New York does, telecommunications failures (which are also connected to failures to the electrical grid) that block access to SNAP funds are food system failures. When public transit fails, as it did during Hurricane Sandy, those people living in communities with flooded food retailers are unable to access food and services in adjacent neighborhoods.

And as these examples illustrate, while we are all at risk from the effects of climate change-induced weather events, we are unequally exposed to these risks and unequally vulnerable to them. Different socioeconomic status leads to disparate impacts and also disparate capacities to cope and adapt to those impacts. In New York, uneven development and various forms of structural oppression (e.g., racial, gender, age, and class discrimination) create particularly vulnerable populations who experience very different risks from climate change. Vulnerability to flooding and the secondary consequences of a storm – lost wages, hunger, physical and mental illnesses — affect those most socially, economically, politically, and otherwise marginalized more than those with social and financial resources.

Vulnerable populations are affected not only by the direct effects of extreme weather events, like hunger due to the loss of a local food retail establishment or food pantry, and also to the secondary effects of climate change, such as rising food prices that exacerbate food insecurity, but they are also vulnerable to adaptation and mitigation responses. This may include: planning decisions to make housing development in low-lying areas more resilient, but also more costly, leading to displacement; or to decisions to use green infrastructure as a means to absorb stormwater, creating new green spaces that inadvertently raise property values and gentrify the communities being greened. It may involve initiatives like the city’s FRESH initiative (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) to increase food access in low income neighborhoods by supporting supermarket development, which may increase vulnerability over the long-run by perpetuating reliance on a small number of established supply chains rather than other forms of food retail like coops, small grocers, or farmers markets, which have the added advantage of supporting neighborhood development. This is not an argument for avoiding mitigation and adaptation, but rather to acknowledge and address the potential adverse effects of these actions on vulnerable communities.

Mal-adaptation, particularly choosing to strengthen existing systems rather than considering radical alternatives, can also make us as vulnerable to future risks as non-adaptation. For example, focusing on fortifying the Hunts Point Food Center, while necessary in the short term, locks us into a centralized food supply chain that may be even more vulnerable to weather-related disruptions in the future, forcing us to depend on additional physical infrastructure in the future to keep the floods away. This is not to say that we ought not have sea walls around Hunts Point, but that we need to pay attention to the potential to lock ourselves into vulnerable systems.

While the supply chain in NYC is vulnerable to climate change, the regional foodshed is also vulnerable. Increases in average temperatures and precipitation in the Northeast are likely to affect the types of crops and livestock cultivated regionally as well as the structure of agriculture. For example, dairy production is important to the Northeast’s agricultural economy, yet increases in temperature have been shown to reduce milk yields and slow weight gain in dairy cows. This may require dairy farmers to invest in ventilation and cooling equipment, which would put small farmers who are already marginally profitable under additional financial stress. For a crop like Hudson Valley apples, temperature extremes and increasingly frequent droughts are likely to reduce fruit quality, or require irrigation systems, driving up costs for farmers already struggling to make a living. Those farmers most vulnerable to climate change include owners of small family farms with little capital to invest in on-farm adaptation strategies, such as new infrastructure, stress-tolerant varieties, or increased chemical and water inputs. The most vulnerable farmers will be those without access to knowledge about the full range of adaptation strategies, or credit to pay for new infrastructure. Those without the social and business networks to access alternative supply chains and retailers will suffer financially when existing supply chains are disrupted. As some farmers successfully adapt, others may be disadvantaged, leading to farmland loss or consolidation in the regional farm economy. Short term solutions to problems such as climate-induced increases in weeds or insects, such as by increasing chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, may exacerbate inequitable human health burdens, or degrade land and community health, driving down property values and exacerbating geographic inequities. In cities, increased extreme heat and droughts may also affect the cost structures and productivity of community gardens and urban farms in low-income communities.

But cities are not just the places that bear the brunt of climate change; they also have roles to play in combating climate change through innovative food policies.

  • Regional food procurement can support regional food economies, and in doing so enable farmers to have the financial wherewithal to invest in mitigation and adaptation. If NYC were to adopt food procurement guidelines that also emphasized sustainable farming practices, like no till farming or low-spray/organic production, our municipal purchasing power would support farms that serve as more efficient carbon sinks and reduce their energy consumption through reductions in chemical use.
  • Increased financial and technical support for Catskill farms (particularly dairy farms) through the Watershed Agriculture Council would help these food producers adapt to climate change, preventing the loss of farming in our watershed and the resulting adverse water quality effects and the need for costly and carbon emissions-intensive mechanical filtration.
  • Rooftop and ground level urban farms can serve as green infrastructure and create multidimensional benefits: stemming stormwater; insulating rooftops with soil and vegetation and reducing the heat island effect; increasing and diversifying food production; creating jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities and making communities more economically resilient and thus better able to respond to climate change risks. Increasing support for urban agriculture as a green infrastructure would be a sound way to address climate change while increasing the productive capacity of the cityscape.
  • Diversifying the food distribution system can make it less vulnerable to disruption while also reducing adverse impacts (like highly concentrated truck traffic) in neighborhoods like Hunts Point. Diversification should include new transportation infrastructure including rail and water transport, and an emphasis on various forms of food retail (including farmers markets and cooperatives) that build community-based social networks, competencies, and infrastructures.
  • Food can be made a central aspect of neighborhood planning, environmental assessment, the land use review process, and other governmental processes such as budgeting and agency management evaluation. This would ensure that as development plans move forward food infrastructure is adequately and sustainably included.
  • Urban waste composting is an important part of soil management and reduced dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture. A citywide organic composting program that returns processed compost to regional farms would reduce methane generation at landfills and help to build soil fertility, benefitting farmers, the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Perhaps the best way to increase resilience to climate risks is by reducing inequities (providing better transit, affordable housing, adequate sewage infrastructure, nutrition and health programs). Systems of governance that empower vulnerable communities also improve the city’s ability to adapt to climate change.

(A version of this essay was presented on September 9, 2014, at the NYC Food Policy Center’s Food Policy for Breakfast: Climate Change, Food and Health: From Analysis to Action to Protect Our Futures.)

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