Our cameras had a tough time getting into the Hunts Point food market. So do local farmers, who have to sell their produce at the nearby Wholesale Green-market instead. PHOTO: ROB HOWARD
By the time the sun had risen over the Bronx River, the crush of delivery trucks at the Hunts Point market -- the largest wholesale produce market in the world (which you can read about in my latest OnEarth cover story) -- had slowed to a tolerable roar. Walking the length of a loading dock a third of a mile long, I no longer had to duck and weave among the laborers hauling fruits and vegetables into the awaiting trucks of New York City metropolitan-area restaurants, supermarkets, bodegas, and pushcarts. I was just about to rendezvous with two Natural Resources Defense Council staffers who had accompanied me, plus a photographer, at the platform’s opposite end, when one of them texted me: Don’t come. We are being cited.
I had come to the Hunt's Point market well before dawn to collect some color for my OnEarth story about ways to connect upstate farmers with downstate consumers; now, it seemed, my reporting trip was about to come to an abrupt end. I snapped my phone shut and slunk toward my car, darting behind parked trucks in an effort to elude security cameras. I didn’t understand why our group was being cited: after all, we had paid our $3 entrance fee at the security gate, and we weren’t doing anything illegal. Or so I thought.
Within moments of hiding my notebook under the driver’s seat of my car, a Hunts Point police officer pulled up: despite my best attempts to slink away, I had been found out. The officer herded all four of us around the market and upstairs into a dispiriting employee break room, where we would remain for the next two hours, very much unfree to leave.
The time passed slowly. “What would you do if I just walked out?” I asked the armed guard, after 90 minutes had gone by. No one had charged us with any type of crime.
“I would physically restrain you,” he said.
I knew from prior contact with the market’s media wrangler that Hunts Point was touchy about visitors, despite a video on its website that calls the market “New York’s Best Kept Secret,” as if it were a tourist attraction. The video’s ebullient host, TV and radio food reporter Tony Tantillo, even invites viewers to “Come! Join me! Visit!”
I tried, Tony, I really did. I wanted to witness first-hand this spectacle of abundance, wrapped up in a map of the world: blueberries from California, cucumbers from Georgia, apples from Chile, melons from the Dominican Republic, mangoes from Haiti. And for a short while, I did. I saw laborers stack boxed and bagged produce eight feet high; I watched as they trundled pallets and cardboard boxes from truck to platform, from platform to truck, in a steady stream of in and out. The scale of operations certainly impressed me -- but I couldn’t help thinking that the ultimate end-consumers of this produce were unlikely to connect it with any particular grower. In fact, only 4 percent (by dollar value) of the food sold at Hunts Point is grown in New York State, with another 12 percent coming from neighboring New Jersey. Those percentages make it somewhat harder to “know your farmer, know your food,” as one USDA campaign exhorts us to do.
NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), along with many other organizations, is working to change this dynamic. But it’s been an uphill slog. The sellers inside Hunts Point don’t want competition from local growers selling food that’s far fresher than what’s currently on offer, who aren’t required to use union labor, and who may receive city subsidies to boot. Meanwhile, local farmers aren’t inclined to pay the 12 to 15 percent overhead that's demanded by the Hunts Point cooperative, which leases this land from the city.
Nevertheless, there’s reason for hope. For more than a year now, the Hunts Point cooperative has been renegotiating its lease with the city. It recently received a $10 million federal grant to redevelop and modernize the space, so long as it agrees to stay in the Bronx. Local food advocates are trying to persuade the cooperative, as one part of its imminent restructuring, to allow regional farmers to sell their goods at the market -- just inside the Hunts Point gate, but not on their high-rent loading docks.
“If we could create a permanent wholesale market for regional farmers, we could get that food into supermarket chains and bodegas that already shop at Hunts Point, and to health-care facilities and the Food Bank of New York,” Mark Izeman, the director of NRDC’s New York Urban Program, told me. “To move the needle of locally sourced food, you’ve got to sell it wholesale.”
With a convenient, centralized wholesale outlet for their produce, New York farmers would, in theory, lease and plant more upstate acres. (Not every upstate farmer wants to spend the time commuting to, and staffing a booth at, a retail farmers’ market in the city.) They would aggregate food with their fellow farmers, package it for transport, contract with shipping companies to deliver it to the Bronx, drop their prices, and turn a profit on the volume.
But before any of these things can ever take place, the farmers need the city to craft policies mandating that institutional buyers -- schools, shelters, hospitals, prisons -- preferentially purchase regionally grown food, whenever the prices between the locally-sourced and distantly-sourced versions are more or less the same. Currently, city agencies are merely encouraged to buy local. (Of course, New York State produce is seasonal, and many crops will never grow here -- which means that brokers, who visit farms and cut deals for buyers, will need to be flexible and creative in their sourcing.) Will it happen? A lot of people hope so. But a lot of political and bureaucratic hurdles still stand in the way.
* * *
The big cop watched me pace the small room. Finally, a senior officer appeared, bearing citations for trespass: we had an official date scheduled for an appearance before the Bronx Criminal Court. Asked why, our armed babysitter said it was a matter of food security. “We supply millions of people with produce; we can’t let just anyone in.” It didn’t seem like they were doing such a great job of that, if anyone with three dollars could waltz through the gate. Either security should be tighter, I thought, or media access should be loosened.
Two months later, the “Hunts Point 4” appeared in court -- represented by none other than NRDC’s director of litigation, Mitch Bernard (see "Making the Case"). Sending Bernard to help us fight our trespassing charge in the Bronx was a little like sending in the Navy SEALs to rescue a cat up a tree; indeed, our attorney admitted that he had to bone up on criminal-trespassing law and make some calls to a few friends who knew about the borough's courtrooms, in order to learn what he could expect. He was far more familiar with the folkways of the federal court system, where he has successfully litigated some of the biggest environmental cases of the last 20 years.
In less than an hour, we were free to leave, though we were all warned to stay out of trouble for the next six months. Next time we decide to take up Tony Tantillo’s offer to check out the wonders of New York's food-distribution system (and, in the process, explore some of the structural barriers confronted by local farmers), I'll make sure to dress down, hide my notebook and camera, and pretend that I'm anyone other than a journalist doing her job.