NYC Adventures in Food: Part 3

Day 3 of our Food Adventures was my favorite day of the trip.  In the morning, we headed to the Bronx to visit Baldor’s Food Distributors and then Hunt’s Point. For those that are unaware (as I was before this trip), this is the location of one of the largest food distribution points in the world. In the afternoon, we visited City Harvest and Fresh Direct. This is going to be a longer post, and yet will barely graze the highlights of everything I learned! It is difficult to try to condense things down when the days are packed with so many interesting visits…

First up, Baldor’s: Baldor’s is a premium food distributor for NYC, Boston and the Washington DC market. They supply hiqh quality food products to restaurants,  stadiums, and similar markets. While at Baldor’s, they took us on a tour of the receiving, warehousing, and processing facilities. It was really impressive to see how they were connecting food distribution from across the country to bring all of the demanded items to the NYC market. They explained how they track the quality of produce shipments from California with temperature monitors that print out a report as the truck arrives to ensure that the quality of the produce is not compromised.

There were so many items in the warehouse that I had never seen (or heard of) before this trip. We were able to sample a few items – my personal favorite ended up being the corn sprouts! Corn sprouts are a micro-green and they have so much flavor! As you eat the sprout there are about five different flavors that hit your tongue finishing with a very sweet taste. I think I could have sat there and consumed the entire package!

corn sproutsActually the corn sprouts ended up being quite the topic of discussion on our bus after the tour – a few of us were trying to figure out how to grow them!!

After the warehouse tour, we went through processing – it was neat to see how they were cutting and packaging all of the various products for consumption – they were packaging everything from fruit salads, celery and carrot sticks, to salsas.

20140306-132715.jpgAfter Baldor’s, we headed to Hunt’s Point Produce Market. Hunt’s Point is how a majority of the produce is distributed into NYC.  Unfortunately since it was so cold out, the fruit and vegetable vendors did not have many displays out (the cold temperatures would have frozen the produce and ruined it), apparently the docks are typically lined with beautiful displays. We only saw one display which was behind plastic, but still quite impressive:

Hunt's Point Other than that, we were able to see an onion shed and a potato packaging house:

20140306-132741.jpg20140306-132757.jpgBefore I move on to our next visit, I thought I would share a few facts about Hunts Point:

  • Fresh produce arrives from around the world by boat,
    rail, air cargo and tractor trailer
  • Generates $2.4 billion in sales annually
  • Employs 10,000 people
  • Receives produce from 55 countries and 49 states
  • Handles 210 million packages of fruits and vegetable
    a year
  • Caters to the largest ethnically diverse region in the
    world with an estimated population of 23 million.

Pretty crazy.

After our visit to Hunt’s Point, we drove to visit City Harvest. City Harvest is the world’s first food rescue organization, dedicated to feeding NYC’s hungry by collecting food from restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms. This year they will collect and distribute 46 million pounds of food using their system of trucks and bikes!

20140306-132818.jpgWe learned about the difficulties of sourcing and redistributing this food in NYC, the limitations and future opportunities (they just moved into a much larger warehouse), and we also learned about the challenges of helping during times of crisis (9-11, Hurricane Sandy).

When we were visiting and touring the warehouse, we saw the staff from the NBA  volunteering time to assist in repackaging food for distribution – kudos to volunteers!

20140306-132830.jpgAs I mentioned at the start of this post, I really can’t do justice  explaining all of the great things this organization is doing without turning this into a truly mammoth post, so if you’re interested in learning more, please visit the City Harvest website, or click to see their annual report which has a lot of great information as well!

As we left City Harvest, I couldn’t help but appreciate their location – their door opens right up to this view – pretty amazing!

20140306-132846.jpgFor our final visit for the day, we jumped over to Fresh Direct  which was located a couple blocks away (I told you they keep us moving!).

Of all the discussions for the week, I found this visit to be the most interesting and thought provoking. Again, out of fear of losing readers – I’m keeping my comments brief, but I could seriously write a LOT about this visit – so many thoughts!

When we arrived at Fresh Direct’s offices we were brought into a conference room for our discussion and were greeted with an amazing spread of food:

20140306-132946.jpg20140306-133000.jpg20140306-133008.jpg20140306-133017.jpg20140306-133032.jpgUm, yum.

And holy amazing!

(P.S. – yes, it all tasted just as amazing at it looked. Especially those cupcakes.)

Kind of crazy since we had just eaten about an hour earlier and had just come from talking about food scarcity at City Harvest which was located around the corner from Fresh Direct.

It truly is amazing how such an abundance of food can be located next to such scarcity in our world.

Since nobody was particularly hungry, we first spent about an hour and a half talking with the co-founder of Fresh Direct, David McInerney, and his merchandizing staff members for each of their purchasing departments. For those who are unaware, Fresh Direct is an online only food retailer. It was really interesting to understand how they work to connect their urban consumers to food that they cannot smell or touch until it arrives at their doorstep. Fresh Direct works to provide transparency in the actual quality of the produce that will be delivered through a rating system. This rating system is updated daily for the produce that is sold to try and ensure that the customer understands the quality that will be received.

Another component that was very interesting to me was seeing the ways that Fresh Direct is working to explain how food is sourced by them, and how it is grown by the farms.  Here is one example: Fresh Direct Blueberries (video link). From the perspective of someone that grew up around agriculture, it was impressive to see that David was passionate about finding and sourcing products, working to understand how something is grown, and why it is grown that way, while also acknowledging that producers in different regions need to deploy different tactics to be able to grow food in a sustainable manner for their individual operations. Growing food is definitely not a one size, or one production method, fits all type of system.

Finally, I was very surprised to see that the prices didn’t seem very far out of line with a traditional grocer, and they offer a lot of variety for all consumer food choices: conventional, organic, grass-fed, etc. I did note that the items in which they would encourage the consumer for each area (produce, meat, cheese, etc) to buy are always at the top of each webpage and the value items are located near the bottom. Which makes sense, because at the end of the day, Fresh Direct is still a retailer working to make money while also connecting food to consumers. However, I do believe they are trying to change the way traditional retailers work to connect food and consumers and I do applaud them for these efforts.

To learn more about Fresh Direct’s mission, check out David’s TED Talk here: Good Foods Taste Great

Due to the feast we had at Fresh Direct in the late afternoon, our planned dinner for the evening was pushed back. However, when we finally did go to the restaurant, we had a new experience for many (maybe all) of us. We sat down to an Ethiopian Dinner. This restaurant was chosen because our group will be traveling to Kenya and Rwanda next year to learn about food and agriculture, and this was an attempt to expose us to a different style of food.

Overall, I thought the food was decent. I know some others in my group would disagree with me on this statement (our trip will be interesting!). I truly didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. It was a little different eating without any utensils but a fun experience overall! We shared plates among groups of 4, our group chose a spicy chicken dish, a lamb dish, and a beef option. It came with 3 different sides and the bread which was used for picking up the food.

Our platter:

20140306-133045.jpgThe group at the restaurant:

20140306-133053.jpgOverall, day 3 was a great experience – I still have so many thoughts about these 4 visits swirling around in my head – when you really think about how food is grown, harvested, transported, distributed, purchased and finally consumed – there really is a lot to think about! There are so many challenges behind the logistics and so many creative options that have arisen from these challenges to make sure that food is available (and many options provided) to meet the demand.

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