Editor’s note: The following story, “New York sits down to dinner,” is the result of an annual project from the food-writing class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. This year, the students told the stories of supply-chain workers, some of the 800,000 people who get food and drink to New York state. The student website, nytable.com, emphasizes “food and” coverage—that is, the intersection of food and immigration, health, public policy, and more.
Our future West Coast editor, Karen Stabiner, created the class in 2013 because students kept signing up for her feature-writing class hoping to focus on food. As she tells it, there’s so much food content in the media universe from people who aren’t journalists; she wanted to work with the next generation to make sure their voices are just as loud. Louder.
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Each day, nearly 800,000 people go to work to supply food to millions of New Yorkers.
The city’s food—19 billion pounds each year, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the city—is trucked in via six primary routes: Four bridges and two tunnels, with the George Washington Bridge bringing in the most volume. It’s sold at 42,000 outlets throughout the five boroughs, over half of them restaurants and cafes, the rest, chain supermarkets, bodegas, and online grocery stores. The food ends up on the plates of over 8.6 million residents, over 60 million tourists each year, and hundreds of thousands of daily commuters from the tri-state area.
The Bronx’s Hunt’s Point is the largest hub for food distribution in New York City, supplying a twelfth of the city’s food—2.3 billion pounds—and distributing just as much to destinations outside of the city. The sprawling wholesale market employs 8,500 workers and caters to a clientele composed largely of independent restaurants. College Point, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn are home to the next largest food distribution hubs in the five boroughs, supplying 0.6 billion pounds and 0.3 billion pounds of food, respectively.
The city expects the number of point-of-sale venues to exceed 50,000 by 2025, with an accompanying increase in the labor force, including more production and more service workers. There is also a growing contingent of urban farmers. The city is home to over 550 community gardens that fill vacant lots and rooftops with lush greenery and provide access to fresh produce for local residents.
To learn more about the people who slaughter our meat, plant our produce, and otherwise put food on our plates, reporters traveled to every borough to talk to food supply-chain workers. We wanted to know what people eat when their professions center around supplying food and drink: what meals they prepare to eat on their shifts, what their food rituals and preferences are at home. We spoke with a Queens caviar purveyor, a Manhattan herb farmer, butchers in Brooklyn and on Staten Island, and more. As the legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher once said: “First we eat, then we do everything else.”
Read more of this work here.