Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow
Center for European and Mediterranean Studies
New York University
One of the most fascinating articles on food that has been circulating in post-Sandy New York was the New York Times piece that introduced the concept of the “Sandy 5”, referring to 5 lb that the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard are said to have put on as they grappled with challenges and losses brought about by the storm. This was due to the larger than usual amounts of food acquired and consumed before and during the storm. Not an avid blogger myself, on the day of the storm, I obsessively followed food blogs, Twitter and Facebook where my food loving friends reported how they poured themselves into preparing elaborate meals, from boeuf wellington to home made pasta to Brasilian quindin. Even more interesting was to hear about the indulgence in alcoholic drinks, ranging from the obscure mid-nineteenth century cocktails to cheap wine, a phenomenon that was evidenced in the empty shelves at wine and liquor stores across post-Sandy Brooklyn. As the storm descended upon the city, our kitchen counter too became a non-stop food assembly line, churning out new dishes every hour or so. When the winds calmed down and left behind a devastated landscape, interrupted lives and severed power lines, many shared stories of rushing to the fast food chains to eat “fast” and “bad” foods in search of comfort. As the aforementioned New York Times article documents, the power-have-nots acted “like post-apocalyptic survivalists,” compensating for losses, stress, cold and darkness.
But these stories of indulgence, abundance and over-consumption also have a darker side. They reveal a complicated relationship that our modern societies have with food and waste management infrastructures. In this sense, what Sandy did is expose a particular organization of social and economic relations as well as render the material infrastructures that support these relations visible. It threw into sharp relief the unequal distribution of risks when repair and service teams were sent to the most affluent areas, while the people who manned these teams came from the places that were ravaged and destroyed by the storm. Many in the most devastated communities waited for weeks for the power to come back, and without power there was no water, no heat, no refrigerator, and in many cases, no stove. Stepping up full force, the Occupy movement with its anti-establishment critiques and mutual aid principles brought fresh blood and organizational skills into coordinating relief efforts and delivering food, water and other resources, propelling the questions of justice, morality and responsibility into the public discourse.
Sandy also showed that the early fears of mass food shortages were unfounded. In this sense, drinking water supply and food deliveries seem to have worked surprisingly well. With an exception of several larger supermarkets, most notably in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the low-lying areas of Manhattan, Staten Island, the Rockaways, Queens, and parts of New Jersey that were badly damaged and flooded, food markets opened without major delays and were well-stocked and capable of continuing service.
But while Sandy’s impact on food and water deliveries signaled the resilience of New York’s food delivery infrastructures, it is the removal of waste and recycling materials that stalled. Walking in post-Sandy New York meant not only maneuvering around fallen branches, displaced household objects and crushed cars, but also around the garbage and recycling bags filled to the brim with cans, bottles, milk cartons, food delivery containers and pizza boxes. The first picture I include here was taken from my office window in Manhattan exhibiting a line of black trash bags next to the clear recycling bags on the street curb. Classified as a potential hazard to public health, waste collection was considered a priority and garbage was picked up within two to four days after the schedule. It should also be noted that garbage pick-up trucks were out and collecting garbage even as the storm started in earnest in order to prevent it from flying away.
The second picture is of a street in a Brooklyn neighborhood capturing the
ubiquitous piles of recycling materials that accumulated after the storm. These recycling materials are here because the city workers and vehicles were diverted to work on other, more pressing tasks. After missing just one pick up of recycling, the piles of recycling materials often reached four or five feet in height in front of every residence and business.
It is these delays in collecting waste and recycling due to Sandy that made the wastefulness of the post-industrial consumer lifestyles acutely visible. While the city has one of the oldest and best organized recycling infrastructures in the country with the recycling rate between 16% and 18%, the issue that begs the question is just how much food packaging is necessary. As Susanne Freidberg, Julie Guthman, David Goodman, Melanie E. DuPuis, Zsuzsa Gille and Andrew Szasz, among others have shown, “freshness,” “hygiene” and “quality” have reshaped the ways in which food is produced, transported and distributed, leading to the increased reliance on elaborate and costly packaging technologies. And then there are the water bottles, soda cans, disposable cups, shopping bags and a wide range of produce such as grapes, tomatoes and zucchinis sold in styrofoam trays covered with plastic to make them into fresh-looking display items.
In addition to the packaging materials, a large proportion of food has been wasted. An earlier post on this blog by David Giles, tells us a story of recovering through dumpster diving. And even the city recognizes it as a problem. A study sponsored by New York City finds that almost 18% of all residential refuse is food and food scraps. Another recent study by Kevin D. Hall et al. shows that one quarter of the total freshwater consumption goes for the production of food that ends up in the trash can.
As we reflect on the piles of waste and recycling materials that dotted New York City after the storm, it becomes clear that the abundance and diversity of food culture that makes this city into a thriving culinary center cannot be understood without the work that goes into maintaining its infrastructures and the large footprint that it leaves on the environment. In this sense, it is ironic that the storm that transformed several New York neighborhoods into a heap of trash was itself fed by the wasteful culture of post-industrial consumer society that defines this city. To put it differently, the sophisticated gourmand and consumer culture and a dizzying array of delicacies available in New York are also its worst enemy that makes it vulnerable to the changing climate.