Hunts Point Distribution Center: A Report with a Spotlight on the Produce Market

by Alexina Cather, MPH
By Emily Payne, Alexina Cather, MPH and Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH

We hear a lot about Hunts Point as a food distribution center, but it can be complicated to understand how it all works. What follows is an overview of the inner workings of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center along with a spotlight on the produce market. We also suggest you read this CityLimits.org article and watch this YouTube video of a panel discussion held at the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center in June of 2016. Finally, check out the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) webpage about the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center here.

The Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx is comprised of three independent cooperative markets: the Hunts Point Cooperative Meat Market, the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, and the New Fulton Fish Market, each of which in turn sublets space to various private distributors and vendors. Many of these smaller markets-within-the-market have been handed down from one generation to the next over a period of many years. The city of New York, through the NYCEDC, is the landlord for the three major cooperative markets and also leases additional space directly to several large vendors including Baldor, Anheuser-Busch, Krasdale Foods, and Dairyland.

The largest of the three cooperative markets, the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market is often described or referred to as simply “The Market.” The term, The Market, is then sometimes used to describe all of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, which can be confusing. However, as stated above, the Center is made up of three main food cooperatives (and their multiple wholesalers and merchants), plus several other independent food companies.

The following description is taken directly from the NYCEDC website mentioned (and linked to) above:

Hunts Point Food Distribution Center

The Hunts Point Food Distribution Center is comprised of over 155 public and private wholesalers, including the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, the Cooperative Meat Market, and the New Fulton Fish Market, who generate more than $3 billion in sales annually.

Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market

Opened in 1967, the Terminal Produce Market occupies 105 acres, and consists of four primary warehouse structures, two adjunct warehouses, and various administrative and maintenance structures, making it the largest produce market in the country. The market is home to 47 merchants ranging from small firms with three employees to large firms with approximately 400 employees for an aggregate total of roughly 3,000 employees. The market captures an estimated $2 to $2.3 billion in revenue per year, or 22% of regional wholesale produce sales, equivalent to approximately 60% of the produce sales within New York City.

Hunts Point Cooperative Meat Market

Opened in 1974, the Cooperative Meat Market occupies roughly 40 acres and consists of six large refrigerated, freezer buildings, including a new refrigeration plant; the total refrigerated space is approximately 1,000,000 square feet. The market is home to 52 merchants and approximately 2400 employees and is governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects and supervises the processing facilities daily. The Cooperative Meat Market supplies meat and meat products to the tri-state area and has distribution channels nationwide.

The New Fulton Fish Market

Opened in 1807, the New Fulton Fish Market relocated to Hunts Point in 2005 from lower Manhattan, making it the oldest and largest wholesale fish market in the country with 38 wholesalers employing an estimated 650 employees. The market consists of a 430,000-square foot facility with 19 bays and 8 separate entrances. The market captures an estimated $1 billion in revenue per year.

Distribution Center Vulnerability and Challenges

New York is one of the 10 cities most vulnerable to rising sea levels, and flooding could increase anywhere from two to 15 times its current frequency and intensity, according to the New York Academy of Sciences. Because of this, the location of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center on a peninsula poses a danger in and of itself. One natural disaster could seriously complicate the supply of fruits and vegetables (Hunts Point accounts for 60 percent of NYC’s produce), as well as fish and meat in New York City.  

According to the NYCEDC, Hunts Point demonstrates a number of coastal vulnerabilities. “Building-level power outages are a significant and shared threat to residents and businesses,” and “due to considerable elevation change, the low-lying areas face significant threats from coastal flooding while the upland residential area does not.”

There were 15 separate weather and climate disasters (costing approximately 15 billion dollars) that hit the U.S. in 2017, making it the most expensive hurricane season in American history. This makes the city of New York’s choice even more complicated: invest millions in revitalizing Hunts Point, with the potential of millions more in damages from a natural disaster in a high-risk area, or break New York City’s major food hub into smaller, more modern, and less susceptible facilities.

A power outage due to a natural disaster could cause Hunts Point to lose refrigeration for an extended period of time, causing a significant amount of food to spoil. According to NYCEDC, as reported and written in Citylimits.org, ‘it is the responsibility of individual businesses and the three cooperative markets to implement their own individual preparedness strategies.’

However, in August 2016, after the Distribution Center narrowly avoided serious loss due to Hurricane Sandy, the city of New York proposed a micro-grid for the Hunts Point area to keep the Center connected in case of a blackout.

In response to Hurricane Sandy, NYCEDC implemented the Hunts Point Resiliency Project in 2015, hosting community meetings to engage with residents and stakeholders and assess these potential disaster risks. The federal government awarded $20 million, with the city of New York allocating an additional $25 million, to fund a Hunts Point Resiliency pilot project. After identifying flood risk reduction and resilient energy as the two priority categories, the city sought a pilot project that would provide resilient power for backup generators.

In total, the federal government has granted $45 million to advance these concepts to improve Hunts Point climate resiliency. The proposed resiliency projects—each of which works with the market’s existing infrastructure—would cost at minimum $5.5 million, and at maximum $573 million. This climate resiliency funding is in addition to a $150 million modernization plan announced by Mayor De Blasio in 2015 (discussed below) and other projects also being considered on the state level, included below with the Market’s slow revitalization.

The Hunts Point Neighborhood: Lack of Healthy Food Access in a Neighborhood Filled with Fruits and Vegetables

Coexisting in a neighborhood marked by income inequality and health inequities, the Food Distribution Center as a whole occupies 329 acres, nearly half of the entire Hunts Point Peninsula. But because it operates on the wholesale level, it does not ensure either food security or access to healthy foods for the residents of the Hunts Point community. In fact, for the more than 54,000 people living in the Hunts Point and neighboring Longwood neighborhoods, supermarket access is limited to only 114 square feet of space per 100 people. Only seventy-seven percent of Hunts Point and Longwood adults consume at least one fruit or vegetable per day, compared to 82 percent of all Bronx residents and 88 percent of NYC residents in general.

Thirty-three percent of Hunts Point and Longwood residents are obese, and 15 percent are diabetic, both of which are higher than the citywide rate. It is the third poorest area of NYC, with  43 percent of residents living below the Federal Poverty Level.

Traffic and Pollution

One could speculate that poor air quality and years of environmental deterioration in Hunts Point have led to higher rates of childhood asthma and corresponding hospitalizations. According to a 2015 Community Health Profile published by the New York Department of Health and Public Hygiene, “In Hunts Point and Longwood, levels of PM2.5, the most harmful air pollutant, are 9.8 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with 9.1 in the Bronx and 8.6 citywide.”

In 2004, a study assessed the possibility of adding a waterborne freight service. However, according to Matthew D’Arrigo, first vice president of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, “It can’t be for time-sensitive stuff. A boat doesn’t move as fast as a truck.”

It is estimated that 90 percent of the Center’s direct traffic comes from the mile-long, six-lane Sheridan Expressway. In addition to the busy truck traffic creating pollution and poor air quality for local residents, the expressway also cuts off low-income neighborhoods from accessing basic needs. It is, however, the only option for producers needing to gain access to the Center.

In the spring of 2017, Governor Cuomo announced a nearly $2 billion plan to transform the expressway into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that will also create a direct route to Hunts Point Food Distribution Center through new exit ramps from Sheridan Boulevard and the Bruckner Expressway, thus reducing traffic on local roads and air and noise pollution in the community. The deteriorated condition of local roads currently means that the Center experiences deep puddles during rainstorms, making it harder for drivers to navigate and increasing the risk of accidents.

Spotlight on Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market

The produce market, under one name or another, has served New York City for more than two centuries. In 1812, it opened as the Washington Market in lower Manhattan. At that time, New York City’s population totaled about 100,000. By 1966, when construction began on the World Trade Center, the population of New York City was approaching 8 million and real estate prices were rising. At that point, the produce market relocated to Hunts Point and hundreds of family businesses that had been feeding the city for years gathered at this new hub to serve the 16 million residents of the New York City metro area. Today, that population has grown to 23 million.

The produce market is a significant contributor to both local and national economies; it employs 10,000 people and supplies produce to 9 percent of the nation, including 23,000 restaurateurs, and it provides 60 percent of produce to the 23 million people in the New York City metro area (as mentioned above). Fresh produce is delivered to the market each day via plane, train, boat, and tractor-trailer from 49 states and 55 countries. Customers pay a fee to enter and are required to purchase full crates.

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Produce Market has learned to adapt to a growing population and vastly increased demand while still using the infrastructure that was put in place in 1966. But it is now facing criticism of its infrastructure, resiliency, and vulnerability.

Moving the produce market and distribution center to a nearby location would be entirely possible. But, given the additional transportation costs, New Yorkers would probably see a rise in food prices and would suffer from a loss of employment. The city must face a decision: to keep the Center in the Bronx and invest millions of dollars in revitalizing the Center’s infrastructure or simply allow it to move to yet another location.

Most of the discussion regarding changes to the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center is focused on the Produce Market because of the vital role it plays in the day-to-day NYC food system. It also brings in the most revenue and is the largest of the three markets.

The following is a series of monetary commitments made by both the city and state to invest in the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, mainly through improvements to the Produce Market. Throughout this time, the Produce Market merchants have expressed their dissatisfaction with the conditions at the Center, while the city has maintained steadfast in revitalizing it in its current location in the South Bronx.

In 2011, the Produce Market’s negotiating committee agreed to a three-year lease extension while they negotiated a long-term agreement with the city. At the time, it was reported that a group of 47 businesses had formed their own cooperative within the market and were considering a move to New Jersey, citing both poor conditions and the fact that they believed the city was taking them for granted. Both these concerns were to be addressed as part of the lease negotiations.

In January 2013, the market’s merchants rejected a 10-year deal to remain in Hunts Point, in part because they did not feel that the city had addressed their most critical issue, which was, as D’Arrigo told The Packer in March 2013, “the future role the Business Integrity Commission will take in regulating our market.” The Business Integrity Commission is a somewhat obscure city agency which the market has accused of overstepping its authority in the past.

In December 2013, however, before the three-year lease extension ran out, Deputy Mayor Robert Steel announced another seven-year extension to keep the market at its present location until at least 2021. That agreement also preserved the option to sign a new 10-year lease that would now begin at the end of the 7-year extension (in 2021).

In March 2015, Mayor de Blasio announced a $150 million plan to invest in revitalizing Hunts Point over the course of 12 years, “fortifying a vital aspect of our infrastructure: our food supply.”

The next summer, Empire State Development (ESD) helped provide funding for the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association to conduct a feasibility study on the best way to upgrade the facilities. Results from the study have not been published, but in August 2016, Governor Cuomo announced plans for a $20 million Greenmarket Regional Food Hub to join the Hunts Point neighborhood. The new facility would provide broader distribution for New York State growers who adhere to specific certification standards and better access to quality produce for underserved neighborhoods. The funding for the hub is in addition to Governor Cuomo’s 2011’s $29.5 million, which aimed to “transform the Hunts Point Produce Market into a modern food distribution facility.”

To fix transportation issues related to the Produce Market, in June 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to make freight rail improvements at the market. The project was one of 47 transportation projects in 34 states and the District of Columbia selected it to receive funding under the highly competitive grant program. In September 2012, Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg announced that $25 million in federal funds had been allocated as part of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

While it’s unclear whether or not the Market’s concerns have been addressed, it seems that the Terminal Produce Market, and the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center as a whole, are getting attention and funding from city and state government..

Market Competition

The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market opened in June 2011. Following a model similar to that of the Hunts Point Produce Market, it too houses hundreds of producers and distributors that go back generations. The Philly Market is the world’s largest fully-enclosed, fully-refrigerated wholesale produce terminal, and because of its proximity to New York City, and its far more modern facilities it has already begun to encroach on business at Hunts Point.

“In 1989, the USDA calculated that Hunts Point handled 75 percent of all the fruits and vegetables entering the region,” MetroFocus reported. By 2012, according to the Economic Development Corporation, it was just 22 percent. In addition, the total number of individual vendors at the market has consolidated from 125 to 40 as they become less specialized.”

Traditional grocery stores are losing business to smaller grocers—such as greenmarkets or even higher-end convenience stores—and those offering more services. This shift on the retail level has also affected the wholesale market. Whole Foods, for example, sources from its own distribution center in Cheshire, Connecticut, and also receives direct deliveries from other producers. It is also speculated that Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods will strengthen Amazon’s delivery service, Amazon Fresh, and also give the company a larger share of retail food sales nationwide.

While all the ramifications of this $13.7 billion deal aren’t yet known, it is increasingly apparent that the way Americans purchase their groceries is changing. With that, the way markets, grocers, and convenience stores supply their shelves will likely change, as well. What worked for the Washington Market in 1812 and the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in 1966 isn’t necessarily the best approach for New York City’s food system in 2018.

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