Behind The Label: Investigating FreshDirect’s Local Commitment

FreshDirect claims to support local farmers and small businesses, but is the company really as community-minded as it appears?

Throughout New York City, massive FreshDirect delivery trucks exhibit locavore-inspired branding that promotes small farmers and eating seasonal, with witty messaging and colorful images of fresh produce.

However, FreshDirect’s policies are far from community-friendly. In fact, its ubiquitous gas-guzzling diesel trucks are regularly singled out for disrupting the neighborhoods they serve with air and noise pollution. The company has also been accused of paying its non-unionized workers well below the minimum wage, clamping down on union organizers, and lobbying for hefty New York City subsidies. In recent months, FreshDirect’s planned relocation from Long Island City, Queens, to the South Bronx has ignited protest among residents and community organizers, who want FreshDirect’s “local” business far from its own locality.

The Good

FreshDirect’s success has come from its successful merging of e-commerce and grocery shopping. Launched in 2002, the company quickly developed a loyal following among busy New Yorkers who want fresh food but don’t have the time to buy it. The company tackled that problem by providing shoppers with an easy-to-use shopping platform that offers a wide variety of fresh produce and grocery items, with the promise that purchases will be home-delivered in a matter of days.

The company’s branding emphasizes freshness, local sourcing, and convenience.

We’ve hired New York’s food experts, built the perfect environment for food and found the shortest distance from farms, dairies and fisheries to your table. You’ll find all the irresistibly fresh food you could want, plus popular grocery brands for up to 20% less than supermarket prices… and we bring it all straight to your door.

According to its website, a key component of FreshDirect’s success is that it bypasses middlemen and sources products, specifically produce, directly from local farms, dairies, and fisheries. FreshDirect’s “Local Market” offers items sourced from within 300 miles of New York City, with an emphasis on small-scale producers and family-run businesses. It’s a veritable online farmer’s market, with heirloom tomatoes and eggplants from Latham Farms in North Fork, Long Island; free range Moulard duck breast from Hudson Valley Duck Farm in Ferndale, New York; and Milk Chocolate Smothered Pretzels from Asher’s Chocolates in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. FreshDirect also offers a wide range of organic and natural foods, at prices cheaper than or comparable to those at natural grocers.

The Bad

For a company that purports to support local farmers and small businesses, FreshDirect doesn’t seem to have much regard for the community in its own backyard. The company is regularly singled out for disrupting New York City neighborhoods with its massive delivery trucks, which often stay parked and running throughout the day. StreetsBlog claims that FreshDirect has “built a grocery empire on free street space,” pointing out that the trucks are essentially mobile warehouses and deliver “idling engines, double-parking, and gridlock galore” along with overpriced groceries.

The environmental impact of the idling vehicles is compounded by the fact that FreshDirect’s delivery fleet is comprised largely of vehicles with diesel engines, which belch pollutants into the air and create intense noise pollution. In 2009, then-attorney general Andrew Cuomo forced FreshDirect to pay a $50,000 fine for illegal idling and ordered the company to outfit trucks with shut-off systems that prevent idling for longer than is allowed by city law. However, these shut-off systems only affect the engine that powers the vehicle, not the separate motor that runs the refrigeration needed to keep the food fresh. As such, air and noise pollution continues to be a problem, despite a five-year-old FreshDirect promise to replace diesel engines with ones that run on biodiesels and find electrical sources for refrigeration units.

FreshDirect is also notorious for paying its workers wages that are well below the national average, in a city with a significantly higher cost of living than most. According to the New York Times, warehouse workers make about $20,000 per year, with less than two weeks of sick, personal, and vacation leave. Attempts to organize workers into unions have been swiftly silenced. What makes FreshDirect’s low wages even worse is that the company has long been supported by subsidies and tax breaks from New York’s Industrial Development Agency, with taxpayer support for the company exceeding $2.8 million in 2010.

In the past year, FreshDirect has encountered even more controversy with its South Bronx relocation plan. For a while, the company had considered a move to New Jersey, but city officials convinced it to remain by offering a hefty $127.8 million in tax subsidies and cash. In exchange, Fresh Direct has promised to create about 1,000 jobs over the next ten years, though the agreement is non-binding and only 30 percent of those jobs are being promised to Bronx residents. While the deal involved multiple political lobbyists, local residents and community organizers were largely exempted from the decision-making process. According to South Bronx Unite, an alliance of community organizations, the relocation will impose 2,000 daily vehicle trips through a part of the city that already faces asthma rates that are five times the national average. The organization has called for a FreshDirect boycott.

The Questionable

The locavore movement started out as a way to support small-scale farmers, businesses, and communities, as well as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Though FreshDirect makes generous use of locavore branding, its unethical practices and environmentally-unfriendly transportation methods are more destructive to communities than anything else.

After news of FreshDirect’s South Bronx relocation subsidies sparked extensive media criticism earlier this year, the company tried to abate some of its critics by expanding delivery service throughout the Bronx (previously, delivery service was limited to the borough’s wealthier neighborhoods). It has also announced that it will start accepting food stamps over the Internet for lower income residents. However, these moves are just a drop in the bucket for Bronx residents that are more concerned about how the relocation will affect the neighborhood, according to Gothamist. Before FreshDirect encourages its customers to “buy local,” it should first look at whether its own practices are in line with its branding.


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Images: arvindgrover, Ed Yourdon


Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.