Two Years After Sandy: Are We Better Prepared?

Following the game-changing hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the first of which flooded upstate New York and New England communities, and the second that walloped the tri-state area, North Star Fund took the initiative to raise funds for the community-led relief effort and to tell the stories of the most impacted people and institutions in our region. 

In this first of a two-part series, we report on a recent meeting organized by North Star Fund and Community Food Funders to explore what’s changed to better protect our food system.

We approached these issues through the lens of sustainable, resilient agriculture and food systems including efforts to rebuild local and regional production, food justice, and the farming and fishing communities that provide local and regional foods and products. 

Is our food system any safer and resilient?  Who will win or lose when the next extreme storm hits?

Hurricanes Sandy and Irene have cracked open a series of issues related to the risk and resiliency of our food system in this new era of climate change.  It’s estimated that New York City holds a two-day supply of food in the event of a hurricane or other emergency. It was clear after these storms that New York City was entirely unprepared to deal with the urgency and reality of getting food to those in need after a disaster. Our local transportation, refrigeration, and infrastructure systems had huge gaps, and people went hungry as a result.

But are policymakers on the local, state, and regional level taking the lessons of these hurricanes to heart? Are we changing our food system based on what our city has experienced?   Are those most vulnerable being taken into consideration?

In May 2013, some six months after Sandy, North Star Fund partnered with the Surdna Foundation and other steering committee members of Community Food Funders to take a deeper look at how climate change and extreme weather have reshaped our notions of resiliency and long-term preparation.

Over three breakfast meetings in 2013, we brought together a group of 20 leaders on the ground, from those who grow and catch our food, to the distributors who bring it to market in NYC, and the activists who turned locally grown food into emergency meals for over 60,000 people after Sandy. These thinkers and doers joined with local funders to understand the critical need to support community-based organizations, enhanced and nimble infrastructure for farmers and fishers, and better communication throughout the regional food infrastructure system. 

On June 8, North Star Fund and Community Food Funders brought many of this same group of community organizers, experts, and farmers together to ask: Where are we two years later? These experts were asked to revisit what’s changed about their work, and update a group of about 20 funders and representatives from city government on lessons learned and the gaps that continue to plague this system.

The biggest takeaway: New York City’s food system has not yet adapted enough in response to these disasters. And, the issue of race underlies so much of who is most at risk in terms of food security and healthy food access, on a day-to-day basis and even more following extreme weather. 

“Despite the fact that Hurricane Sandy struck New York City two years ago, what we’re hearing from food system experts is that the city and state are just now beginning the critical work of identifying changes needed given the realities of climate change,” says Adam Liebowitz, North Star Fund’s Food and Environment Program Officer and coordinator of Community Food Funders.

Organizations like Occupy Sandy, Rockaway Rescue Alliance, American Farmland Trust, and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, who had been on the front lines after Sandy, shared where they have seen progress in the past two years while stressing what needs to still happen.

A central theme they raised was the need for strong community-based organizations that are present before they are needed during times of disaster relief. In the days and weeks after Sandy, existing organizations proved critical: they often served as the only assistance to the city’s most vulnerable communities in areas like Red Hook and the Rockaways.  

“What we hear from other places is exactly what happened here in New York City and the region after Irene and Sandy,” explains Hugh Hogan, Executive Director of North Star Fund. “Especially in the immediate aftermath of a major storm emergency, the response falls on the shoulders of local people, their organizations and their relationships. When it comes to the food system, we are simply not doing enough, overall and from the perspective of racial and social justice and who will be hungriest if indeed as the experts predict, we will keep getting these major storms in the mid-Atlantic region.” 

In addition to more involvement from community-based organizations, experts are pointing out that the communication structures between and among food producers and food distributors need to be secure and reliable so that when systems get disrupted, these crucial entities can stay in touch. Otherwise, food doesn’t go anywhere in times of disruption.

Community Food Funders will be releasing a more complete report on food system resiliency later this year as part of their ongoing work to connect leaders in philanthropy who want to help create a smart, fair, and resilient local food system. The report is well-timed given that the city’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency has announced that they’re launching a food system resiliency study that will be completed in 2016.

With attention and smart actions, we can ensure that when the next disaster hits, no one in New York City will go hungry based on their zip code.

Image of post-Sandy relief efforts courtesy of CAAAV.

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