This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City. Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.
When I bike to the restaurant from Brooklyn in the morning, and as I ride the tricycle from the restaurant to the market, distribution trucks are the main traffic on the road. It ‘s as though I’ve put myself in the running, an incredibly small competitor, rather laughably defiant, beside the titans of a certain race. I ride beside Dairyland, Baldor, Agri Exotic, Pat La Frieda. I get stuck behind Dairyland: The Chef’s Warehouse! all the time. My head is right about at the height of their wheels.
Transportation, as one of many elements in distribution infrastructure, is a more complicated topic than I can tackle in one sitting. The moving of food requires the coordination of space, labor, transportation, refrigeration, consolidation, packaging, communication, and sanitation. One has to consider speed, cost, flexibility, scheduling, environmental effects, technical failures, returns, distance, and national, state, and city policies.
The food system has evolved as transportation has allowed, especially as boats gave way to trains, and trains gave way to trucks. When trucks took over, most urban wholesale marketplaces left the heart of cities, often for peripheral neighborhoods where the 24-hour pollution, noise, and traffic of legions of trucks could be installed on a grand scale without facing any powerful voices of opposition. Yes, there are now many farmers markets, CSAs, urban farms, and community gardens throughout the five boroughs of New York. Yet nearly all the food in this city, in all the supermarkets, delis, bodegas, gourmet shops, restaurants, fast food chains, and street side trucks, goes through the New York City Terminal Market in Hunts Point in the South Bronx. That market is set up to be physically and financially efficient, and as the movement for sustainable agriculture begins to grow, we must remember to remember where that market fails. It fails to respect the neighborhood where it is located, it erases the names of food sources and producers, it shields the public from the gritty reality of how a food system works. The new Wholesale Greenmarket in the Bronx may only improve upon a few of these faults; the New Amsterdam Market at the Seaport may correct a few more. The challenge now in New York is to build a system for a growing number of small farmers, and for the entire urban community, that draws what it can from the current system’s infrastructure, but does not mimic it’s faults.
I think of the wholesale markets that work by night, of all the trucks that drive by day, of all the food that fills these trucks, as I fill the cabinet on the back of the tricycle I use for work, in Union Square, in New York City. I am no remotely significant fraction of New York’s food system. The food I buy, the wheels I turn, don’t even represent the needs of a whole restaurant. It is the fact that I am not the only one pushing along with a slow and steady movement…that drives me.
I write now only because I happen to use this rather unusual vehicle, in the center of Manhattan, which is an interesting place to be. It is a place where all at the same time, I can ride a heavily loaded tricycle too and from a farmers market, and feel barely noticed, and yet feel that a glimpse of the wheels, the open door, the inside racks…has gotten everyone’s gears turning. When glimpses become gazes, when the middle school boys snicker, when the farmers laugh at what city people do, when the chefs wonder whether my work is made easier, when the cars honk and the bus drivers wave…it seems a glorious, hilarious part I have to play. At least, it’s somethin. I can fit two flats of strawberries, two flats of tomatoes, ten pounds of arugula, six pounds of watercress, a bus tup of summer squash, ten pounds of cipollini onions, and a whole case of eggplant in that cabinet. So I do it. And I do get stuck behind Dairyland all the time, but at least I’m in the running.