clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How City Harvest tackles food waste and feeds hungry New Yorkers

The institution has delivered 600 million pounds of food since its founding in 1982

City Harvest’s food sorting facility in Long Island City.
Photo by Arun Nevader/Getty Images for City Harvest

One early morning in late January, before the sun comes up over the skyline, an industrial corner of Long Island City is coming to life.

The parcel is dominated by a parking lot full of trucks outfitted with the City Harvest insignia. Toward the back is an unassuming entryway into the City Harvest headquarters—both office and warehouse space—where food is taken in, organized, and distributed to more than 500 New York soup kitchens, churches, and homeless shelters five days a week.

It’s a massive undertaking that City Harvest has been working to perfect since its founding in 1982—and by the end of 2016 City Harvest had delivered a total of 600 million pounds of food across the five boroughs, a number that took off after the nonprofit moved into its Long Island City headquarters five years ago.

“Going back 34 years … we are still built on the mission that we are New Yorkers helping New Yorkers,” says Jenique Jones, who oversees City Harvest’s Agency Relations team. “The majority of our food comes from New York.”

City Harvest’s distribution center in the early morning.
Emily Nonko

The concept of City Harvest first took hold in the early 1980s when a group of concerned citizens began enlisting friends and borrowing cars to transport leftover food from restaurants to New Yorkers without enough to eat. The nonprofit has only grown since then, eventually moving into a 3,000-square-foot space within the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2004.

In 2011 City Harvest had the opportunity for a major expansion and seized it, taking a 45,500-square-foot facility on the banks of Newtown Creek, in one of the few still-industrial areas of Long Island City.

Before opening what’s known as the Food Rescue Facility, the organization rescued over 80,000 pounds of food per day; now, that number is up to more than 150,000 pounds a day. “This warehouse has made that possible,” says Lex Wilder, who has been with City Harvest for 27 years and now heads up logistics. (“My blood runs City Harvest green,” he says.)

But that may not last long: the HQ is adjacent to land that will be developed as part of the city’s Hunter’s Point South project. It is also about a 10-minute walk from the sprawling FreshDirect headquarters, which sold to a developer for $48 million last year.

Not only has the organization been able to increase its food distribution, it has mastered a system that takes advantage of New York City’s density to deliver as much food—that would otherwise be wasted—to as many people as possible. “We pioneered food rescue in New York,” as Wilder puts it.

This is how they do it.

The LIC facility holds a 4,000-square-foot freezer—larger than the entire Navy Yard space City Harvest used previously—as well as a 5,300-square-foot cooler and walls upon walls devoted to storage space. Here, the organization keeps everything from canned beans, pasta, spices, and baby food from grocery stores, to excess vegetables from upstate farms or Hunts Point Market.

Even as City Harvest has expanded its reach within the five boroughs, New York has no shortage of excess and waste food. “I am beyond astounded at the amount of food waste,” Wilder says. “It should be a point of shame.” Although the organization doesn’t have food waste statistics specific to New York, the Natural Resource Defense Council has found that nearly 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted.

When coupled with rising inequality in New York, it means that there’s no shortage of people who need help to feed themselves or their families. “We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, so there’s a greater need for emergency food than we actually realize,” explains Jones. “It’s not necessarily the low-income person you might think. It could be a mom making $50,000 a year, but it’s New York—your rent is $2,000 and you have a child. In order to live here and support your family, you have to dip into your food budget.”

Emily Nonko

Lex Wilder shows that produce like avocados get screened for quality control in City Harvest’s enormous Long Island City facility.

City Harvest tackles these issues with a highly efficient system. To start, all of the items delivered to the warehouse are input into a computer system that knows the preferences of each of the nonprofit’s delivery sites, be it a shelter, church, or community center. The allocation system determines how much, and what type, of food to send to each place—some places only take kosher food, for example, or may have a need for produce as opposed to canned goods—which “allows us to be more equitable and more culturally sensitive as we distribute our food,” according to Jones.

Items coming in to the warehouse are also screened for quality; some may be overstock from grocery stores, while others are so-called “ugly” produce that shops decide they can’t sell. (“Nine times out of ten the ‘ugly’ produce is perfect to eat,” Wilder says.) While dried, canned and frozen goods may sit in the warehouse for longer periods of time, City Harvest prioritizes moving produce as quickly as possible—it’s one of the healthiest and most in-demand products to distribute, Wilder says, following high-protein food like chicken and eggs.

Up to 100 pallets of food go out every morning between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m. to a fleet of 22 trucks. The food that leaves the LIC facility is coupled with food that drivers pick up from restaurants and grocery stores, which is immediately delivered to those in need. This is where New York’s dense grid system comes into play: it’s one of the only cities in the country where it’s easy to pick up food from a fancy restaurant and deliver it to a church a few blocks away.

“We can tell those supermarkets and restaurants that this food is probably going to go to someone within a ten-block radius of you,” says Jones. This hyper-local system also helps City Harvest keep costs low: It costs the organization 25 cents to rescue and deliver a pound of food, and City Harvest is able to utilize 93 cents per dollar donated to fund their food rescue work.

Emily Nonko

During one of their daily runs, workers from City Harvest pick up food from throughout the five boroughs—here, from Sullivan Street Bakery—and drop it off at locations like homeless shelters, churches, and more.

During a recent trip, driver Jofiel Reynoso picked up fresh bread from Sullivan Street Bakery’s retail and production space at 533 West 47th Street, in Midtown West. It was delivered to Metro Baptist Church, also in Midtown West at 410 West 40th Street, about a five-minute drive from the bakery. City Harvest picks up fresh breads, produce, and meat from upscale restaurants like Per Se, as well as grocers like Whole Foods. The organization will even do last-minute pickups for catering companies stuck with excess food after an event’s been cancelled.

City Harvest couples its food delivery with a policy team that advocates at the city, state, and federal level, as well as community programming led by staffers and assisted by volunteers. Through its Healthy Neighborhoods program, the organization partners with residents, community organizations and after-school programs to engage New Yorkers about healthy choices and bettering local food landscapes.

“One of the things [the city] is getting wrong is that there’s a punitive way we think about food with lower income people,” says Jones. “We’re focusing on banning sodas when the reality is that most people know how to eat healthy—[but] they don’t, not because they don’t know how or don’t want to, they just can’t. When 100 percent orange juice is $5 per gallon but I can get three sodas for $5, what is the choice I’ll make?” As Jones says, tying into City Harvest’s mission, “We need to be thinking of other ways to help people or encourage people to make those purchases.”

City Harvest focuses on five lower-income neighborhoods in each borough with limited healthy food outlets: Bedford Stuyvesant, the South Bronx, Washington Heights/Inwood, Northwest Queens, and the North Shore of Staten Island. The organization hosts free, farmers market-style food distributions; offers grants to other emergency food programs; and holds free nutrition courses and activities. For one initiative, Healthy Supermarkets and Corner Stores, City Harvest works with local retailers to improve the quality and variety of produce for sale.

City Harvest is heavily supported by volunteers—whether that be through donations or New Yorkers helping sort food at the facility. “There’s something for everyone,” says Jones. “Whether you want to write a check, or do a nutrition education course because you’re a chef.” And as the organization moves into the new year it has no plans to slow its tremendous distribution of food. “Even though we’ve doubled the amount of food we’re putting out there, we know there’s more needed,” says Jones. And she poses the question City Harvest has been asking itself for the past 34 years: “We’re still asking, how can we get more food to more people?”