By: Tove K. Danovich
If you live in New York City, 60 percent of your daily fruits and vegetables come from one place. It’s not a grocery store, a farmers market or a farm. Sitting on 113 acres of land in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx, the Hunts Point Market is the central hub for most food in this city of over 8 million people. In 1966 the market’s first manager Joseph R. Santini told the New York Times, “For all practical purposes, every bit of produce a New Yorker eats will come through here, from potatoes to pomegranates.”
Vendors at the market don’t post prices but rather operate based on the day’s supply and demand. The earliest, most discerning buyers arrive at the market close to 1 a.m. in order to get the best produce — even if at a higher cost. The last buyers of the day are happy to cheaply take whatever’s left.
At its peak in 1989, the Department of Agriculture calculated that Hunts Point handled 75 percent of all fruits and vegetables in the region. Today the Economic Development Corporation says that number is closer to 22 percent. The market is both in the midst of hard times and central to New York City’s ability to feed itself on a daily basis.
Today the market serves mostly owners of small businesses and bodegas. Large grocery stores like Costco or Whole Foods have their own distribution centers. Luckily, local chains like Gristedes — which buys 9 tons of produce a year from the market — and restaurants or specialty food markets still come to the market looking for fruits and vegetables from all over the world.
New York City has had a central food market almost as long as it’s been a major metropolitan city. Originally located in Tribeca, the Washington Market opened in 1812 to serve a population of 123,706 and later grew to occupy several city blocks. By its peak in the 1880s, it held over 500 vendor stands. Lower Manhattan was held together by a triangle of major food markets: Washington Market for produce, the South Street Seaport Market for seafood (eventually merging with the Fulton Market), and the meat market at Gansevoort and Little West 12th Street.
By the 1960s New York’s population had grown to 7.8 million. The central markets were faced with traffic jams and crumbling, inadequate infrastructure. Rising real estate prices in lower Manhattan and plans to build the World Trade Center forced the Washington Market to move to its current location at Hunts Point in 1966. It cost the city $40 million to build it, and annual savings were expected to be between $10 million and $15 million, according to historian Renee Marton. McCandlish Phillips, writing for the New York Times, called the new facility “The Grand Central Station of broccoli.” The market has a lot in its favor, including expanded facilities — nearly 1 million square feet of interior space — as well as an ideal location between Manhattan, New Jersey, Long Island and Queens; the troubles it faces today are obstacles many wholesale markets have in common: outgrowing their physical capacity and competition from wholesalers with their own distribution centers.
Despite its expansion Hunts Point could reach its maximum capacity again, just as it did years ago when the market was located in Tribeca. Although vendors have consolidated from the original 125 that made the move to Hunts Point down to around 40, the smaller, family-run companies have gotten bigger. Suppliers like A.J. Trucco, a vendor at the original Washington Market, “was mainly an Italian chestnut distributor” until the slump over the last decade forced him to diversify, wrote the New York World.
Though Hunts Point keeps traffic away from an already-congested Lower Manhattan, residents of the Bronx neighborhood near the market suffer from higher rates of asthma due to pollution from a constant barrage of delivery trucks. Once again, the market size has reached a breaking point. With the renewal of its ten-year lease, the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, which rents the facility from the city, will hopefully start to see the effects of a $332.5 million plan to modernize the market.
Before the lease was signed, there was a worry that Hunts Point might choose to move to newer facilities in New Jersey. Though not too far away, the extra distance to travel to New York City would have resulted in higher food costs and fewer sources of fresh food for New Yorkers. The market is also an employment powerhouse in a notoriously poor neighborhood — the average household income is only $16,000 per year compared to the U.S. average of $42,000. More than 5,000 people work at the market each day, many of them local, and twice that number rely on the market for the foot and truck traffic that keeps them in business.
Another obstacle looming on the horizon for the nearly sixty-year-old market is competition from shiny new food markets in the Northeast. Though New Yorkers rely on the market for food, it’s actually more of a global — rather than local — food hub. According to the New York Times, only 4 percent of the market’s $2.3 billion in annual sales comes from New York State, with an additional 8 percent from New Jersey. In total the market is supplied by 49 states and close to 55 countries. Plans for reinventing the market include adding a stronger local-food presence. While New York City has a popular Greenmarket system, there’s currently no hub for wholesale regional produce. With an increased market for local food in grocery stores and restaurants, advocates from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to nonprofit greenmarket manager GrowNYC argue that it could be a boon for Hunts Point and New York’s farmers both.
In June 2011 Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market opened to provide state-of-the-art facilities to serve vendors and buyers from all around the world. Though New Yorkers still need to eat, if inadequate facilities lead to slowing sales at Hunts Point, farmers from the United States will start diverting their wares to these new markets. We’ll still be getting fed, but the food will be more expensive because of increased transport costs.
New York City has had wholesale markets for over 200 years, but the system still has many kinks. Hunts Point is a vast improvement on previous locations but still congests traffic, pollutes the air, and rarely serves the local residents — though it may employ them. Despite being the home of one of the world’s largest produce markets, Hunts Point is a food desert. It’s only recently that people have tried to organize buyers clubs or similar programs to make the wholesale market more accessible to the nearby public.
Some people might argue that if the average New Yorker isn’t aware of Hunts Point, it means the food hub is a success. We may have cheaper food, but if the market isn’t efficient and up-to-date, it isn’t serving the people of Hunts Point and other New Yorkers as grandly as the Grand Central of broccoli should.