On Wednesday, September 17, students in Professor Lynnette Widder‘s Hungry City Workshop participated in a trip to the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx, the largest produce market in the world. Professor Widder, whose course focuses on understanding urban resource flows in qualitative and quantitative terms, sponsored the trip to give students a first-hand experience of the spaces required for urban-scale resource provision. Located in an area of high unemployment, the market’s use of relatively labor-intensive work flows still makes sense. Around 80% of the market’s employees live in the Bronx.
The tour commenced at a potato packing facility, whose manager explained the packing process to the students. Around fifteen people worked in the space – sorting potatoes by size, quality, and packaging types. The potatoes were then moved from a hopper via “totes,” or enormous bags measuring approx. 6 x 4 x 4 feet, then weighed and placed on machines with various sieves. Visual inspection and hand packing are vital to quality control.
The tour along and across the market’s wings ended in the conference room of the executive director, Myra Gordon. Her conference room, with its 15 foot long mahogany table and high-backed leather swivel chairs, is worthy of a James Bond villain, but Ms. Gordon is instead a generous, knowledgeable advocate (and critic) of the Market.
Gordon offered some staggering statistics: more than 130,000 trucks and 3,000 box car trains circulate through the market each year. Built as a rail terminal, the market includes 18 miles of track; but as rail delivery systems deteriorated nationwide, truck traffic for both delivery and pick-up has dominated. Food from 49 states and 55 countries passes through the market, with most US produce coming from California, Arizona, Florida and Georgia. Trucks are cooled along the way by refrigeration units which run off dedicated diesel tanks.
Transportation energy and its rising dollar and environmental cost is far from the only environmental challenge faced by the Market. New federal regulations are creating a “code chain” which requires continuous refrigeration at every intermodal transfer point. “Leitering,” as these transfers are called, is therefore kept to a minimum, eliminating the potentials of more energy-efficient arteriole transportation systems that include rail, ship and only limited truck inputs.
Refrigeration is the biggest energy challenge for the 40 merchants, all of whom negotiate individual agreements with ESCOs. The city, which owns the physical plant, has expressed doubt about the potential for solar PV or geothermal (the market is built on land fill). Although the market has just signed a new seven year lease, discussions are also underway with the State of New Jersey to build a new market with better facilities and more space to grow.
The trip concluded with a walk down what might be the longest five foot wide corridor in New York City – a full mile long spanning the upper level of one of market’s wings. As cities evolve, the spaces of resource provision become increasingly marginal. Hunts Point is a visceral reminder of the extent of our consumption.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.