Green Villains

posted in: Ruminations | 17

In the current “Dirty New York” issue of The L Magazine, I let loose with a mini-tirade on Jamba Juice. But along with stopping slurping up styrene, I strongly encourage you to check out the New York “Green Villain” in the article just before that one: FreshDirect. I didn’t write this blurb, or any others for that matter, but who could have put it better than this:

Dear New Yorker who supporters idling, double-parked, bike-hitting trucks by forking over the money for the luxury of having to take time out of your very important day to walk to the market to buy food: Why don’t we just float boxes of produce down the street on rivers of oil?” [Excerpted verbatim from here]

I’m sorry to put this to many friends and neighbors, but FreshDirect subscribers, read it and weep. Big, bulky cardboard boxes are no more environmentally friendly than tons of flimsy plastic bags that so many of us have thankfully already traded in for reusable (and totally cute) tote bags.

On the other hand, I did manage to move my entire belongings into my new place last month thanks to the plentiful, folded-up-for-recycling FreshDirect boxes I collected from the doorsteps of Fort Greene brownstones. So I suppose the company is good for something still.

17 Responses

  1. Ben

    I respectfully disagree on FreshDirect.

    The FreshDirect blurb assumes that the trucks are worse than having multiple retail spaces everywhere that take up a lot of electricity.

    Gristedes (for example) is probably warehouse(s) plus trucks to deliver to stores plus the stores. Fresh direct probably uses more trucks, but only has the warehouse(s). The warehouses probably use the closer to the correct amount of energy to keep the food in good condition, whereas the Gristedes stores are made to be comforable and show off the food for consumers. Plus, Gristedes probably has a lot more products that don’t get bought or go bad than FreshDirect.

    Further, the real estate taken up by Gristedes could be used by other businesses or for residential space. That would make the cost of living in the city go down vis-a-vis the suburbs, which would make it cheaper to live here where people use less energy in transport (i.e. fewer cars).

    No the boxes are not as good as the totes, but they are more easily reusable and recyclable than the plastic bags and are produced from renewable resources. Also, it should be easy for them to switch to reusable plastic boxes like I have seen other food delivery companies in other cities do.

  2. matthew

    You use the word ‘probably’ four times in your second paragraph, and not one of them make your claims any more factual. But that is not the point I want to make.

    I’m curious, Ben– Are you proposing that we do away with chain grocery stores and solicit only a door-to-door delivery service? I think it’s a fair assumption to say that trucks are worse environmentally than having multiple retail spaces, and I couldn’t imagine what the traffic would be like if everyone in New York City relied on big trucks to deliver food to them week by week.

    I also can’t imagine how more trucks on the road versus storefront space would be a better choice in terms of energy consumption. Whether the space becomes other stores or even housing in place of the Gristedes, the building space will be consuming electricity. Furthermore, I can’t imagine how reusing those spaces for housing would make a dent in the cost of living, nor do I think it would it necessarily reduce the number of cars on the streets. In fact, I wish to make claims exactly to the contrary. I think developers (ignoring the recent economic struggles) would create fancy apartment spaces in those old stores and drive up the cost of living in the buildings around them. And there would just be that many more people idling in their cars in city traffic, probably behind the seven Fresh Direct trucks double-parked to make their deliveries on that particular block.

    There are lots of problems involving distributing food to the the population, but that seems to me to be a problem of global overpopulation and misuse of resources. In my opinion, the most responsible thing would be to walk to your local grocer, buy local and organic foods from producers who use ethical and sustainable methods, and walk them home in reusable bags. And don’t have babies.

  3. Harry

    I have to respectfully disagree with “Ben”
    While warehousing and shipping is indeed a use of fossil fuels, Fresh Direct is using far more than Gristedes or any other “example” of a comparable larger scale source for food and groceries. A supermarket gets deliveries by the full truck load, this is a much better (not good necessarily) method of goods transport when compared to the idling of trucks making dozens if not hundreds of deliveries every day. I do not have hard data but I would place a large bet that per pound delivered to the end user in an urban environment Freshdirect uses far more energy than a store that gets its goods palletized by the truck load.
    Furthermore stores keep refrigerated and frozen goods together thereby using less energy to store them (they keep each other colder) Once Fresh Direct orders are boxed the whole thing (cold and room temp) needs to be kept cold(hence the idling trucks, they have to keep the cooler on top running) for the sake of the refrigerated items.
    As far as spoilage or expiration, that is a matter of market forces and smart buying within the company, you cannot make assumptions about who throws away more spoiled product.
    Turning commercial space into residential is not as easy or feasible (zoning, developers) as Ben makes it seem. There is little evidence that it would make the cost of living go down as people would become more dependent on fewer commercial sources that could raise prices without recourse from the population. Without diverse commercial options everything then has to be delivered by truck adding to traffic and fuel use. A supermarket, especially in an urban area is a distribution center that people can walk to from a localized area and have access to a large range of goods with fewer truck runs than home delivery.
    I am not a Freshdirect customer, so I cannot speak about whether or not their boxes are made from renewable/recycled paper. While boxes can be made renewably, they are often not.
    I did actually order from Fresh Direct once. I not only received mediocre produce, but mislabeled herbs (that I ordered for a recipe) and an entire 18x12x8 box containing a single jar of mustard.
    While I understand the luxury/conveniece offered by FreshDirect in a busy life I for one will continue to pick out my own vegetables, preferably from a farmer’s market or CSA

  4. the objector

    i have to agree with the two posters above, and would like to add the following:

    the final stage of food delivery, from the retailer to the customer’s home is widely accepted as the LEAST efficent. that’s why the suburbs suck: it takes more energy to drive food from the supermarket to the home than it does to drive it from the farm, or the processor, to the store (sometimes thousands of miles). the BEST thing about the city, food-shopping wise, is that most of us walk, or bus or subway our food home.

    so having your food delivered by truck, from queens, is pretty disastrous, environmentally.

    i grew up in manhattan, and we had our groceries delivered a lot, but Gristedes, and most others always deliver by foot, or bicycle-powered carts/handtrucks.

    so if my mother were to have groceries delivered today from her local grocery they’d come people-powered, from three blocks away, in reused boxes. if she got fresh direct, they’d come in one of the aforementioned trucks, from Queens, in brand new boxes.

    and i had the same experience the above poster did- i ordered once from fresh direct, and got 2 pieces of cheese in a box that could have easily held my 60 pound dog.

    an absolutely obscene waste of packaging, recyclable or not.

    and what about all the extra gallons of gas/diesel to come and pick up all that recyclable cardboard, and drive it to the recycler?

    i think the amount of cardboard put out on my block, in williamsburg, has quadrupled since fresh direct showed up.

    recycling can’t be justification for quadrupling the amount of something you consume- it just doesn’t work. we have to learn to use less of everything, and recycling is not a free pass to use more.

    and one more thing: there is NO WAY we could eliminate markets to the degree that it would create a shift in the real estate market. people will ALWAYS need to grab that quart of soy milk, or some laundry soap, or pasta.

    all we do by patronizing fresh direct is drive “real” food businesses closer to the edge of solvency, depriving them of the margin of profit they need to survive and prosper. which means fewer store jobs, store owners working longer hours, and generally tougher conditions.

    i’m lucky enough to live in a neighborhood surrounded by family bodegas, and a family run grocery store (Tops!) that i love. i shop LOCAL, and at the green market.

    the hell with fresh direct.

  5. Matt Timms

    Fresh Direct is a brilliant business model, and of course would eventually come under fire for its sins, but whatevs! Especially in NYC, one of the busiest cities in the world, where any idea to save time should be celebrated, Fresh Direct has for the past few years been a great service idea. Definitely it is a bit decadent for my budget, but if I could, I would. NYC is a town renowned for its innovation and accessibility – this is the city of the 24-hour deli. I would love groceries ordered online and brought to me! And “bike hitting trucks”? I think cabs are probably more guilty of smacking bikers than any lumbering trucks. I understand the love of local small businesses (specifically for local delicacies and specialty items) and make sure I give love to them, but how sentimental can you get in such a massive and constantly growing urban environment? The best small businesses will last if they truly serve their purpose as special or convenient places. I try in my own small way to support local businesses, but I have no prob with this Fresh Direct non-issue. Individuals can make up their own minds, but like I said, if I could buy general groceries, I would Fresh Direct over Whole Foods. Just remember to reuse those boxes and recycle, no big woop. The same goes for Starbucks. I’ll use it in a pinch, and would rather go to Joe’s but wtf who cares, I got to be somewhere, don’t have time to argue!

  6. jonny

    Wow, Matt, you sound reeeeally busy. Thanks for taking the time to comment about how innovative and profitable Fresh Direct is. I’d write more, but I was stuck in a cab behind an idling Fresh Direct truck making deliveries on E. 70th Street. Time saving!

  7. Thew

    This topic raises important issues of class and power, individual and community (ecosystem) health, geography and infrastructure, as well as the food system itself, all of them intertwined.

    I think a distinction should be drawn between trend-mongering “foodies” – ever searching for the new tidbit, the latest ethno-taste fad, the hippest dining spot — and those more holistically concerned about our food — where it comes from, the people who grow and harvest it, the soil it’s grown in, what’s added to it, how it gets to us, and only then, what we, the eaters, do with it. It’s a no-brainer that what previous posters tout as the convenience of a brilliant business model is not necessarily good for the health of the planet, which, of course, means our health as well. Capitalism, with its property-fetishism, is largely anathema to the environment. More trucks on the street mean worse air, more asthma, more compromised immune systems, greater and greater long term costs, etc., but we need to remember that if they aren’t on our streets they’re on the streets of the warehouse districts, which are usually where the poor live. But by now we should all know that the planet is a commons; air, water, & soil all register the poison we put into it, and it all works its way back to us. The abandonment of the nation’s rail system, the long delay in constructing a vital rail tunnel under the Hudson, in favor of highways and semis, are all coming back to haunt us. People made those decisions, usually a very small number of people. People now can make other decisions, both collectively and individually (it takes more than hope, it takes action). Meanwhile, food cooperatives, CSAs, & urban farms are viable, necessary alternatives.

  8. Saigon

    I’m not in NYC so I find this discussion particularly interesting and informative. Food, where it comes from, and how it’s eaten/cooked/treated is so important.

    In Seattle I’ve been getting bi-weekly deliveries from Pioneer Organics, a CSA (Community supported agriculture) for a few months. The produce is organic, local, seasonal and the farms are mostly co-ops – often from small farms that sell only through this service or farmer’s markets. I’m not sure what Fresh Direct is – is it just any kind of grocery delivered? I tried to look at the site, but it won’t let you in without a zip code (which I tried entering a random Manhattan zip and it didn’t work…

    I like pioneer organics, some of the best fruit I’ve ever had. They use re-useable bins, which we swap out, and they deliver on a schedule to limit their driving (no next day delivery). I also eat fruits/veggies outside of my usual repetoire (I wouldn’t normally buy kale, but when it shows up, I figure something out) since it’s seasonal and whatever is growing at the time is what I get. I don’t feel like this service is wasteful, but you’ve all got me thinking about it.

  9. Angela

    I ordered Fresh Direct ONCE and the guilt I felt over an ENTIRE BOX being used to pack a measly bag of spinach ravaged me. Never again. We live in Brooklyn but carry our booty from Trader Joe’s on 14th Street. People in NYC don’t need delivery – just move yer lazy asses outside and carry your stuff home (hopefully in cute tote bags, yes!) There are reasons why America is so young, yet already more polluted than its cousin countries. Shame on you Fresh Direct junkies!

  10. Bob McClure

    I think this is a great question and I feel I am only newly becoming acquainted with warehousing and food distribution on a larger scale. Here’s my background…

    My brother and I run McClure’s Pickles and for the past year we’ve been growing quickly. We have been distributing our product to our retail customers for the past year now and every time I am making a delivery, there is usually 1 or 2 additional trucks making deliveries as well (either distributors or producers trucks), and yeah..tend to be idling b/c of refrigeration, etc. but ultimately…the products that we enjoy have to get to those retail stores. And if using a distributor…that product is gonna get shipped from wherever it is made…stored in a warehouse…then shipped to the retail store. So…is Fresh Direct, helping to cut back environmental impact in one way by purchasing as they state on their site, “directly from farms, dairies and fisheries (not middlemen), so it’s several days fresher and a lot less expensive when it gets to your table.”? And in another way, negatively impacting the environment through excessive product packaging and logistics?

    It’s an interesting dilemma…we want to be able to enjoy the foods we like year round, and the only way for that to occur is through local and global logistics…otherwise goodbye bananas, some balsamic vinegars, many wines and cheeses, etc.

    The farmer’s markets and CSA’s seem to be the way in which we cut back on environmental impact…although the farmer then requires a way to get their product to market.

    I imagine that Fresh Direct has as part of their financial plan where they are not running 1/4 and 1/2 loads for delivery…that would cost them too much money.

    Joe and I are currently negotiating with a distributor who will work to place our product throughout the northeast region. We are happy for the growth, but at what price? The product we get is grown nearby or driven in from somewhere…we drive to pick it up…we make the product…put it on a pallet and have a semi-truck deliver to me in Brooklyn, where I get in a Zipcar or hand deliver — or the product gets shipped to a distributor warehouse where it then gets put on another truck for delivery to retail store. And when I’m making batches in Brooklyn, I have pretty much the same process. So without this distribution…we would limit our growth, right?

    I think what’s important is that we keep searching and implementing ways to reduce impact & waste…(eg. Recycling our jars, using recycled paper labels, etc.). There will be ways we can do so which are more in our control and others not so much.

    Interesting to note, that Fresh Direct has on premise baking, meat and food prep.

    Here’s a link to a Industrial news site I read (cheesy yes…but if you’re interested in global local industry…there’s some good info to find out how it all impacts our day-to-day grind)

    and here’s a link to a piece on Fresh Direct:

    I think the packaging industry is pretty fucked and another issue which can be debated upon.

    I don’t have any for-sure answers and as a business owner, I want to see growth and prosperity at a level which does not undermine our core-values and also want to be as impact-Less as I can afford to be.

    Great post Cathy!

  11. Wanna Breathe

    My personal experience with Fresh Direct pollution: Fresh Direct trucks idle under my window several times a week. I live in a 600-unit building and the diesel and the noise waft all the way up to my 8th floor apartment. If they disturb me that high up, how many people in my building are being affected by just one truck? Repeated calls to their corporate office have been rudely responded to and futile. The community board is getting involved and I suggest others enlist their local boards in a citywide effort to solve this quality of life issue. Thank you Cathy for starting a dialog.

  12. the objector

    hi, me again.

    matt, sure you’re busy, we’re all busy, but the point is we HAVE TO learn to make choices irrespective of our “needs.” when my only choice is starbucks, or i’ve forgotten my cup, guess what? i don’t BUY a coffee. when your busyness means environmental degradation, on both a macro (global warming) and micro (belching exhaust in peoples homes/streets, avalanches of cardboard)level, i don’t think it’s an excuse.

    like i said, i grew up here, and my parents were plenty busy. but they both managed (and manage still) to get food into their houses without fresh direct. i am as busy as anyone i know, and i don’t “need” fresh direct.

    be honest- you WANT fresh direct, you don’t NEED it. nobody NEEDS it, except maybe the elderly and handicapped who are trapped in their houses and apartments, but few of them can afford it. meals-on-wheels can let their trucks idle on my block all they want (though they don’t- the times i see them deliver they’re fast, and turn off their engines).

    force fresh direct to start bicycle delivery- for the busy people. and yeah, when the special-food-for-rich-people trucks are making all the rest of us late (i’ve been stuck behind those trucks plenty of times) and giving the poor kids asthma, and costing the city millions in extra waste-disposal costs, well then we’re all “paying” for your convenience. which is bullshit.

    this is the problem with the current capitalist model- someone makes money at the expense of the environment, and we all pay to have it cleaned up. and/or we suffer the consequences (trucks, exhaust, garbage).

    Saigon- i’d say that your csa delivery system is the sort of thing that justifies delivery- supporting as it does local agriculture, organic farming, and reusable packaging. sounds like a very sustainable model to me. stick with it! maybe they’ll get waste veggie-oil powered trucks someday? or bike delivery carts?

    fresh direct allows one to specify delivery to the hour, which means i’ve seen half empty trucks pull up to a building, vomit out a stack of boxes for someone who wanted delivery at 6:30: that truck sits and, yes, idles, for 15 minutes. Ten minutes later another mostly empty truck will pull up, TO THE SAME ADDRESS and vomit out ANOTHER load, for another tenant.
    i sit on my stoop in the summertime and have seen this many times- i live on a sparsely populated block of small townhouses, not huge buildings, and 75% of the time there’s a fresh direct truck sitting, pulling up or pulling away.

    angela: have you checked where your trader joe’s is coming from? it’s great that you subway it home, but as most of their produce is coming from far, far away (much of their frozen food comes from china, some comes from india) you may be doing more damage than you thought.

    as long as you’re on 14th street, why not head over to the green market (open monday wednesday friday and saturday…and there’re great ones in brooklyn on saturdays too- williamsburg and downtown) ? you can freeze your own stuff, in season, and save the circum-global schlep.

    bob- congratulations on your business, and thanks for caring about more than just the bottom line. csa’s are a great answer, and so is weaning ourselves off of things like bananas and french wines. i’m not saying NEVER, but the market for bananas was “created” a hundred years ago- before then we did fine without them. there’s good local wine, and vinegar, albeit not balsamic.

    have you considered using standard canning jars for your pickles, which could be reused by those of us who do our own canning at home? or collected and donated to groups that can for food pantries and the poor? just a thought….

    i’ll be sure to look for your pickles.

  13. Laura Wehrman

    This is such a great post and what an amazing dialogue it has opened up! Your blog is always a pleasure, Cathy.

    I am not a pickle fan but I will check them out. Your post was very interesting and you seem to be thinking about the bigger picture and I really respect that. As a small business owner myself, I weigh the cost of doing business vs environmental cost at every turn.

    I am an NYC person as well and I will also echo “objector’s” suggestion of visiting the green market. Not only does Trader Joe’s have food from so far away but the amount of packaging for each and every product is unbelievable.

    Carry a small tote in your bag, visit the Union Sq. green market open 4 days a week. Talk about “Not Eating Out In NYC”. Prepare to be dazzled. Eating in season is also a suggestion. You don’t reeeeally need an avocado in December.

    Best to everyone.

  14. cathy

    La la la la CAN OF WORMS! What a multi-faceted spat this issue has arisen. I truly appreciate everyone’s different opinions on FreshDirect and its ramifications. I especially like the idea of class brought up by Thew, which is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about while not eating out. I really feel for you, Wanna Breathe. Again, thanks so much, everyone.

  15. Steve

    I agree that FD has poor use of packaging and the trucks do idle but don’t think that the solution is shutting them down. Have you ever gotten a FedEx or UPS package delivered to your door? Perhaps you should go pick them up as well. There are a number of issues being discussed and here are some particular FD provides for me.
    – I had an Associated within a block of me. Although I smiled and chatted whenever I went in I was treated rudely and inattentively. I don’t know why but it was always a pain in the ass when I did. At a Gristedes in another neighborhood I was unable to find fresh fruit and frequently bought items that had the expiration date obscured.
    – They didn’t have many of the items I wanted and so shopping trips involved at least 2 or 3 places. I was near the Union Square Green Market at one point so I took advantage of that but it is an expensive alternative.
    – FD is cheaper than several supermarkets for normal groceries (juices, etc…) and I purchase local goods on their site whenever available/affordable.
    – Much of the eco-unfriendly habits that are being mentioned here are practiced by the other chains (Associated, Gristedes, Key Food, Met Food) and poor recycling habits from my walk past the back/front of the stores.
    – There is a significant amount of waste in the food industry. FD is one of the largest contributors to City Harvest (they have a central warehouse facility to donate from.)
    – When my baby came and my wife was out of commission having groceries delivered is a great help.
    – We always break down and recycle the cardboard boxes.
    – Baby food is heavy. Babies are heavy. Those together are heavy. FD once again is cheaper than other places for baby food.

    There are a lot of presumption here about the health of the planet with FD vs. current alternatives and the overall footprint 20 Associated stores have vs. a 300,000 sq/ft facility for FD. Objectors’ “the suburbs suck…” comment typifies the one track vision of those that think there is only one solution which further restricts change because those that oppose it see nothing to compromise with (goes both ways). I believe the employees need to have certain practices re-inforced – shutting the trucks down, packing more effectively. This clearly comes from a corporate level and perhaps higher pay to make them more concerned about their role but imagine if FD:

    – Used Bio-diesel fuel and enforced the shutting down of trucks while the cooling mechanism still functioned.
    – Packed more effectively or utilized an alternative packaging solution.
    – Leveraged more CSA/local businesses to re-sell products (other than the food Co-op I dont see any other place provide more alternatives for me in this regard).

    Would this be more acceptable or will the presence of trucks always be trumped by a green market or CSA/Co-op? They apparently plan on doing the above although I’m sure there will be critics. I have lived in 3 boroughs, New Jersy and Long Island in my 40 years in the area and believe that there is always room for improvement in all business models and compromise, whether forced or volunteered, benefits the majority. In the case of environmental impact I don’t see FD as the evil empire as many of you do. The technology/internet era has arrived and can streamline many processes – not always for the better but instead of opening up a farm and saying change is bad let’s see how we can improve and create an acceptable alternative. The loss of traditional jobs/roles can then be supplemented by new ones.
    The class issue is significant. I’m interested in seeing the racial and socio-economic demographic of eco-friendly (CSA/Park Slope food Co-op/Green Market,etc…) customers in the city. My personal experience has shown me that many of the working class, non-white families (like the one I grew up in) are not patronizing these options. We bought what we could afford and what we could get home during the time both my parents worked. Kool-Aid was popular as well as other unhealthy and eco-unfriendly products. Why do you think that is? Well, first of all, they were cheap as most mass produced items are. Secondly, we had no choice but to go to the local store and bus it home so whatever they had we bought. Lastly, we were too busy surviving to consider our eco-footprint.
    How much are the FD drivers making and you curse them on your bike or in the taxi that is stuck behind them as you head to the Williamsburg bar that your friend is jamming tonight? How do you raise a family and buy eco-friendly products on 8-10 and hour? Let’s look at the advantages we can leverage – this is New York CITY and there will always be a vast array of people from all walks of life so working as a group in an urban landscape should help this move along effectively for everyone.

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