City Limits: To feed its 8.5 million residents, New York City relies on an interconnected food supply chain clustered around just six major distribution centers—the largest of which are located in flood hazard zones. 

These six distribution centers help stock the shelves of supermarkets, bodegas and other suppliers across the five boroughs, ensuring continuous food access for New Yorkers.

But for a city already struggling with high levels of poverty and food insecurity, one extreme weather event has the potential to create widespread disruption across the food supply chain. 

With the memory of the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy looming large, city officials, policy experts, hunger activists and community organizers remain concerned about how New York City’s food supply system will fare in the face of future natural disasters.

Food faces the future

As extreme weather events like floods and storms grow more frequent and more severe, the global food supply will become increasingly unstable, according to a report released by the United Nations

The impact of climate change on food security has already been felt globally due to warming temperatures and rises in extreme weather events, the report found. 

These findings come as many New Yorkers are already struggling with food insecurity and the rising price of food.

According to the Food Bank for New York City, the price of groceries has risen nationwide by approximately 16 percent since December 2007. In New York City, this number is even greater, at 17.4 percent. 

With 1.75 million New Yorkers living below the federal poverty line in 2016, New York City’s poverty rate is 35 percent higher than the national average. And with high rates of poverty, food insecurity arises.

According to Feeding America, 13.8 percent of New York City residents—more than 1.3 million New Yorkers—were food insecure in 2017. That number was even higher in the outer boroughs, with 17.1 percent of Brooklyn residents and 16 percent of residents in the Bronx facing food insecurity.

“To the degree that New York City is all vulnerable to flooding, low-income people are more vulnerable,” says Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “And we don’t have a great system [in place] for when that happens.” 

Nearly 1.6 million New Yorkers were receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as of June 2019. And recent cuts to SNAP put nearly 700,000 Americans at risk of losing their benefits.

“I don’t know that you’re going to see the cataclysm worldwide for everyone like people are predicting,” Berg says, referencing global predictions of decreased food access. “I think more likely, you’re going to see low-income people suffering.” 

While levels of poverty and food insecurity have decreased in recent years, climate change and climate disasters threaten to reverse that pattern.

During natural disasters, “people who have never experienced hunger or want are introduced to both in real time,” said Margarette Purvis, CEO of the Food Bank For New York City, in a 2012 special message on the food bank’s response to Hurricane Sandy.

When storms hit

New York City’s food supply systems favor clustering of distribution centers and manufacturers in order to keep shipment costs efficient and increase revenue.

However, this centralized system poses risks. When neighborhoods that are home to these food distribution clusters are impacted by extreme weather, entire parts of the city’s food supply chain are threatened—and so is residents’ ability to access food.

“Having a very centralized food system is very uncomfortable,” says Charles Platkin, Executive Director at the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. “And it’s not smart for a city that’s already teetering with high levels of food insecurity and severely underserved communities.”

New York City’s major food distribution clusters include Hunts Point, College Point and Sunset Park. Hunts Point Food Distribution Center is the largest, producing 4.5 billion pounds of food each year, roughly half of which remains in New York City.

Flanked by the East River on two sides and the Bronx River on the third, the Hunts Point distribution center—located in a low-lying peninsula, as well as in the 100-year floodplain according to FEMA’s Preliminary Work Maps—is increasingly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events. Read more>>