What Is the New York Foodshed, Anyway?


In an article he wrote for the Huffington Post last week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer outlined his plans for making food policy a priority for city government.

Among the initiatives he mentioned was a city “foodshed…consisting of farms in a given radius of the city where growers of healthy food would have special access to city markets and from which government purchasers of food would be required to buy a certain percent of their vegetables, dairy products and other items.”

Intrigued by the idea — and admittedly envisioning a big, padlocked shed somewhere in the Hudson Valley — Fork in the Road called up the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which, along with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is working with Stringer on the project.

Jill Isenbarger, the executive director of Stone Barns, explains that the foodshed is currently in an academic study phase, but will be an “in-depth exam of the local food production and capacity of the New York metro region.”

The point of the project is to get more information about where food comes from, “to look for context, like transportation infrastructure and climatic conditions. It will help us and other organizations to think about production capacity for this region, and teach us about areas of the food system that are the most vulnerable.” They’re looking for concrete data on issues that farmers confront, such as, for example, the challenges they face in processing animals for consumption.

The project came about last September, Isenbarger says, at a meeting Stringer hosted to discuss food justice and increasing the accessibility of fresh food to underserved communities throughout the city. Once it’s in full swing, the foodshed project, she says, will take anywhere from a year to 18 months to complete.

Isenbarger describes the project as a sum of many moving parts. “I would say parts are trying to analyze and quantify food production in the region, and making the comparison between existing and potential production — what do we produce now, and how might we think of narrowing that gap?” There are plenty of variables to explore, such as soil quality, transportation structure, and the length of the growing season. And there are plenty of regional challenges that also present opportunities, such as abandoned farmland and the question of how to better connect farmers both to one another and to underserved communities.

Ideally, Isenbarger says, the foodshed will ultimately be used to “break down financial, social, and political barriers to create a more fair food environment and to give people better access to good food.”

Though that won’t include access to an actual shed. “I was at a community meeting where someone asked about how to get keys to the shed,” Isenbarger recalls. “I think she was imagining a Gramercy Park situation.”