Filed under: Interview | Tags: Central New York Regional Farmers Market, Food, Food Distribution Centers, Hunts Point, Interview, Markets, New York City
As my thesis begins to focus on the spaces of food logistics, I have become increasingly aware of such spaces here in Syracuse, New York. Beyond Wegman’s grocery stores and various farmers markets, Syracuse’s grand space of food is the Central New York Regional Market (CNYRM). This 60 acre site (located on Hiawatha Blvd. and adjacent to the Mall and Regional Transportation Center) is the primary produce food hub in Upstate, New York. The combination of wholesale (for distributors) and retail (for consumers) sales, facility upgrades, a on site restaurants/commons, and community engagement have led this market to be considered one of the more successful in the country, and one of the larger ones in respect of the scale of its context. The market oversees the sales of nearly $70 million a year in farm products and on public market days draws in crowds of up to 26,000 people. I headed up to the market to meet its Executive Director, Ben Vitale. You can read more about Mr. Vitale and the growth of the market under his leadership in this article in the Country Folks weekly farm newspaper.
Additionally Mr. Vitale is the current President of the National Association of Produce Market Managers (NAPMM). As the title implies this organization comprises the managers of all the major food markets in the United States. Collectively these produce markets are hubs of our national/global food system. In addition to running the logistics of these food markets, NAPMM and Mr. Vitale work closely with goverment and policy agencies (such as USDA) in managing our countries food system.
Mr. Vitale and I talked informally for over an hour about the Central New York Regional Market, our countries food system, global food trends, and the different types of markets and their possibilities in my thesis. Below is a transcribed version of some of my more specific question and his answers.
Nate Wooten: The Central New York Regional Market has been incredibly successful at maintaining both buyers and sellers, with peaks of 40,000 people per week, and over 400 separate stalls, under your leadership what role have facility expansions and upgrades had on the success of the market?
Ben Vitale: The market went through some really bad times in the 70′s, 80′s, and early 90′s, and when we did the renovation project here I guess the timing was pretty good. The market was at its lowest point, when I came here in ’97, if you take a look at the pictures downstairs, I mean is was in shambles. So we got an influx of money and put roofs on the place and did a lot of upgrading to the facility. And at the time people were getting more involved and wanting to know where there food was coming from, farmers markets became more popular, so it was really good timing that we improved the facilities. We had a change in management, we had a change in society, and all those things came together. This place is really- if you look at markets across the county- this is one that really sticks out.
NW: Also, do you think that part of the success is the multiple functions of the market (wholesale and retail)?
BV: That is what makes us financially successful. When we first opened the commons, I had fifteen different people come. They wanted to look at it and copy it some other place. They would say “well is it viable?” By itself no; you know, are our wholesale building viable, not by themselves, probably not. I can guarantee you our retail markets aren’t viable by themselves because it is very expensive to run a farmer’s market with the type of facility we run, with buildings, and all the services we provide. What makes us successful is the combination of everything.
NW: Considering the variety of scales in which food systems operate, and a lot of the environmental concerns and nutrition concerns, what trends do you see developing in the food industry and where would you like to see it go?
BV: I’ve never been a supporter of organic, because its a perception more than its a fact. For the last five years Ive been telling everybody organic is a fad, local is the real thing. People can identify whats local whats regional, that will be around for a long time… Where I’m excited and the thing that I like right now is the whole movement toward local and regional and just really getting back to what the whole organic thing started on: where is your food grown and how is it grown. I think thats where we’ve been in the last couple of years and I think thats gonna be our future for a while.
BV: Then it goes to the next level with markets like this. One of the things Ive been working on with the national sub-comittee with the USDA, the Wallace Center, and the Project for Public Spaces is regional food hubs. The USDA and our current administration would like to develop these regional food hubs a lot more. I was just in Washington, and two weeks ago I did a presentation on what we do here in the market (which is considered to be a regional food hub). I just keep beating it in their heads, its not a new concept.
NW: As part of the National Association of Produce Market Managers, what opportunities and impacts can you have on actual food policy?
BV: NAPMM has been around since the 40′s, 60-some years, and were completely volunteer. We have one paid employee that does some secretarial work for us part time. The USDA use to work with us quite a bit, but the policy in Washington the last 20 years shifted away from wholesale terminal markets, markets like us, and shifted more to the tailgate markets (farmers markets). So we lost contact with the USDA over the years, and my focus as president this year was to rebuild the relationship with the USDA and another good organization United Fresh. United Fresh is mostly made up of members that are wholesalers and distributors, even the Ciscos are part of that. Even the fast food places like McDonald’s are part of United Fresh.
BV: When I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago and was doing the presentation on the food hubs, we were also meeting with our congressmen and representatives in Washington to talk about policy regarding produce and the food industry. Thats really the way we can make the most influence by participating in those types of things. Also, by me working directly with the USDA, they get a sense of whats going on out there in the real world, sometimes in Washington they dont know whats going on out there. For instance they’d seen pictures of this market but they didn’t really know what we do. When I was giving them the presentation on the market they were like: “holy cow, we didnt realize you were doing all that stuff.” Yeah, you want to talk about food hubs, but its happening out there.
NW: Early you mentioned the Project for Public Space, this concept is one of the main interest in this thesis: exploring markets as public spaces. I’m interested in the history of markets as public space, I interested in urban food economies, and I see so many positive opportunities in the exchange of food. More specifically I am interested in wholesale markets as part of our public infrastructure, wholesale markets like Hunt’s Point in New York. What potential do you see for these markets becoming more public?
BV: Well they dont want you there. You’re gonna be in the way. You’re gonna see things that they don’t want people to see. Its interesting the markets in this country, though we’ve developed over the years, were almost behind the times compared to Europe. Food safety and cleanliness are behind the times here. We’re so worried about traceability; who cares about tracing were you got sick, Im more worried about making sure no one gets sick in the first place. Us American’s, thats the way we work. Our markets are filthy compared to the European markets, this market’s not.
NW: Well European markets are more thoroughly designed architecturally and spatially to be places that people want to go.
BV: Well your talking about retail markets, thats the trouble. When you go to a wholesale market its completely different. Their wholesale markets exclude the public because they probably dont want people there either. I mean, have seen you anything about the 7th Street Market in Los Angeles with the rats running all over and people using the bathroom all over (watch the nbc hidden camera report here). This market use to be that way back in the bad days. Im not saying this stuff goes on everywhere, but the Hunt’s Point Market is just so congested and you know there are things going on there that you dont want people to know. Yet, they are doing such an important task.
NW: That contradiction and the differences between retail and wholesale is really what my research is getting at right now. From what I can tell retail alligns more with sustainable and local food movements while the wholesale markets are more unsustainable and part of the global food system.
BV: Well you have to have both. If people want a choice you have to have both. Thats one of the reasons our market, a state authority, doesn’t limit trade. We have out-of-state dealers, we have New York state dealers, we have farmers, we have everything. We don’t limit anything. But, were the decision is made is what choices the customers have. At one time there was a rule here that if there were local tomatoes at the retail market no one could sell any other tomatoes. And ok, thats great for the local farmer, which 75% of our board is made up of, but what choice does that give to the consumer. So in the end of October when all the tomatoes start freezing, some farmer is gonna pick these bad tomatoes and the customer cant have the choice to have a better tomato.
NW: Then there’s the concept of food sheds and how much land it requires to feed our cities in a local manner. Look at greater New York, its huge, there just isn’t enough agricultural land nearby. And then there are places like Phoenix and remote cities way up north, were they cant grow much food, but people live there, cities have been built there. You’re not going to reorganize the entire urban population.
BV: The way society is now we have really learned to have choices, and for us not to have choices isn’t going be the answer anymore. I keep talking about the educated consumer. Something that bothers me here in Syracuse is we have an opportunity to grow so much more than we already are. Within an 8 hour drive, if you think of all the populations we cant get to I wonder why we aren’t bigger and better than we already are. We got the thru-way, interstate 81, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston all just a few hours away.
NW: Well also mixed in this landscape are a lot of farms. When I first came up here I wasn’t aware of all this history and the productivity of the upstate.
BV: Yeah, but instead we’re going the other way. The farmer’s are planting less. Farmers are going out of business. Its just sad.
NW: Let’s finish by trying to address some questions related directly to my thesis project. I am hoping to start looking at the global, regional, and local food system–from production to distribution to consumption–and what role architecture plays in it. From farm barns, to wholesale market sheds, to kitchens, food has some significant typological and spatial impacts. More specifically I want to examine and propose ways in which a food hub like Hunt’s Point can become more public. With more funding and attention coming to the market I see it as an opportunity to use Hunt’s Point as a place for public education that could be more of a market hybrid like the market here in Syracuse. This is at least my initial plan, more of an urban design project perhaps.
NW: Right now the city has a vision plan for the Hunt’s Point Market site that includes some public things like a waterfront park or boardwalk, but the market buildings are this vast truck-filled industrial wasteland. I guess I am also interested in challenging this vision plans modest suggestions. I don’t think it deals with the real issues. I see the market as having so much more potential. You use the term ‘food hub’ but maybe it could be more like a ‘food campus’- a place where the broad realm of food is brought to the publics attention as education and entertainment.
BV: Well I guess there’s potential, but then I worry about the safety concerns and the issues of the massive amount of trucks that currently have to go in and out of there. If you are going be bringing the public there you’re probably going to have to separate them in some way. I don’t know the current plans for the market exactly, but I know the facility use to look more like an airport, with different layers of use. You know, space is so valuable in New York, and if you start spreading it all out one level, I don’t know if you’d have enough room. J. R. McIntyre, the manager there now, he actually oversaw the construction of the Atlanta airport, so that his background. So they have all the different trucks delivering on all the different concourses. When you think about it they are getting twice as much in the same amount of space. I guess my issue again is how you separate the two enough to be successful, safe, and beneficial to both. Its an issue of logistics.
Photos of the Central New York Regional Market provided by the Central New York Regional Market Authority:
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