An Island of Opportunity: Feeding Istanbul’s Islands

By Kristin Larson (Istanbul). Kristin explores how both modern transportation methods as well as ways of old–such as horses and home gardens–help keep the islanders living off the coast of Istanbul fed.

Istanbul’s Archipelago

The Princes’ Islands or simply ‘Adalar’ (Islands) as they are known in Turkish are a series of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara not far from mainland Istanbul, approximately 20 km southeast of the city. Throughout history, the islands served as home to exiled royalty and, during Ottoman times, a testament to the Empire’s multicultural and multiethnic make-up. Today, approximately 14,000 Turkish citizens call the islands home and the population can increase up to 10 fold in the summer months as seasonal residents and day-tripping tourists look for a respite from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Ferries and sea bus from various Istanbul ports service the four islands that are open to the public – Büyükada, Heybeliada, Kınalıada and Burgazada. On any given summer day, hundreds of local and foreign tourists crowd the Kabataş pier for a spot on one of the departing ferries. I joined their ranks one summer afternoon to learn more about how Büyükada (literally, ‘Big Island’), the largest of the Princes’ Islands with an area of approximately two square miles and home to 7,000, feeds itself.

Passenger ferries with mainland Istanbul in the background

Passenger ferries with mainland Istanbul in the background

Hand-drawn map shows the islands off the coast of mainland Istanbul.

Hand-drawn map shows the islands off the coast of mainland Istanbul.

Living Local, Eating Local

The island residents, many of whose families have lived on the islands for generations, have grown accustomed to meeting their basic foods needs with summer gardens. Residents grow staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants, while sharing extra produce with one’s neighbors. Thanks to a mild microclimate and fertile soil, the island is home to an abundance of fruit trees. Green and purple plums, quince, apples, oranges, kumquats, pomegranates, figs and cherries are just a few of the varieties growing in people’s gardens and hanging temptingly low over their fences. The islanders collect mushrooms in the fall and spring and forage wild greens such as nettle and purslane, which are common ingredients in Turkish cuisine. The island also counts a few cows and several hundred sheep and goats among its population, which are primarily raised for meat consumption.

Many island-dwellers have home gardens where they grow fruits like the plums shown above.

Many island-dwellers have home gardens where they grow fruits like the plums shown above.

Supplying the Islanders’ Unmet Needs

The islands’ current food situation provides an opportunity for entrepreneurial middlemen to supply fresh produce and dairy products to supplement the islanders’ local supply. The middlemen purchase goods from Yalova, a city southwest of Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara coast, and even as far as Bursa, in order to re-sell them at weekly bazaars held on the islands. The middlemen service a different island each day, so that one day they will hold a bazaar in Büyükada and the next day on Heybeliada, for example. This is a unique pattern as most bazaars in Turkey still exhibit a direct farmer to consumer sale, rather than a middleman to consumer pattern.

Watermelon and melons at Büyükada's weekly bazaar

Watermelon and melons at Büyükada’s weekly bazaar

Despite the residents’ gardens and the weekly bazaars, the islands still lack the ability to fully supply the population’s food needs, and thus, the majority of food is shipped in from mainland Istanbul. Island residents estimated that upwards of 80%-90% of food products arrive from the mainland. From May to September when seasonal residents open their summer homes and tourists flood in, shipments come on a daily basis to supply the population. In the winter, shipments slow to as little as once a week to sustain the islands’ year-long population. Even items that one wouldn’t think an island would need, such as fish and water are shipped in—water due to concerns with the islands’ tap water and fish to meet demand.

Once the ferries and boats transporting the shipments dock and unload, the goods end up in the hands of two groups of people: local wholesalers and chain supermarkets. The local wholesalers store the goods and distribute the shipments to small convenience stores and ‘mom and pop’ establishments as needed. The large supermarkets also have their own designated storage units. Placed throughout the island, storage units aid food distribution; I found one storage unit adjacent to the island’s fire station, close to the water and thus easily accessible from the unloading docks. An islander who goes by the name Diyarbakırlı Ali described how as recent as 20 years ago, unloading the pallets from the ferries was still done with manual labor—he even had scars on his arm to prove it. Today, the unloading process is entirely mechanized but this is a relatively new development in the expansive history of the islands.

Storage unit next to Büyükada's fire station

Storage unit next to Büyükada’s fire station

Pallets of bottled water wait on the unloading docks

Pallets of bottled water wait on the unloading docks

A typical boat transporting goods to the islands.

A typical boat transporting goods to the islands.

Transporting the goods from dock, to store house, to point of sale, and finally to the consumer also presents some logistical challenges. Emergency vehicles are the only authorized motorized vehicles on the islands, and thus, the main modes of transportation are foot, bike, and horse. The islands’ taxi service is none other than horse-drawn carriages known as phaetons—a charming mode of transportation, but also one that can assault the nose. Even though many prefer to walk or bike the islands, the landscape is hilly and forested, which makes phaeton travel an attractive alternative for residents whose houses are perched on steep inclines. For the purposes of transporting goods from the dock and storage points, small electric bikes, carts and other approved small motor vehicles are used, but horse power continues to be a main mode of transportation and distribution particularly for the end consumer who purchases goods from local and chain markets. Large trucks – including refrigerated trucks – arrive on boats and may disembark on the island only with the permission of the islands’ Municipality. Usually, these trucks are allotted a few hours, or if necessary, overnight to transport goods to their respective storage locations.

Horses are a common mode of transportation on the islands, often used to transport water and other goods

Horses are a common mode of transportation on the islands, often used to transport water and other goods

Perishable goods such as fresh fish arrive in ice boxes or coolers and are taken directly to the stores and restaurants 90% of which are centrally located and a stone’s throw away from the unloading piers. Goods are often shipped in the early morning and late evening and this too helps to prevent spoilage. Eggs and yufka (phyllo dough), a staple in Turkish cooking, come in directly from Bostancı, which is one of the closest Istanbul ports. Shipments arrive from a number of ports, including: Eminönü, Kabataş, Kadıköy, Bostancı, Kartal as well as others.

Many islanders commented that the costs of transportation resulted in higher end-prices for consumers, but long-time residents were quick to point out that there was also access to a greater variety of goods. For example, consumers can find tropical fruits such as avocados and mangoes and other foreign imported goods. On Büyükada, a high-end deli shops caters to the community of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish families and another store meets the demand for kosher meat.

An Island of Opportunity

The island’s diversified food supply from small local gardens to weekly bazaars and whole sale shipments ensures that the island is well-supplied throughout the year and is able to meet increasing demand in the summer months. While the islanders mentioned they had never experienced a food shortage or a period of food rationing, the islands remain dependent on food sources from mainland Istanbul and its surrounding coastal cities. As a city of over 14 million people (and that’s just the official number), Istanbul has its own set of challenges when it comes to feeding its residents, and one pauses to wonder if the islands would feel a strain on Istanbul’s food system more acutely.

Gizem Altın Nance, an island resident and the Co-manager of Buğday Association for Supporting Ecological Living, a sustainability organization based in Istanbul, believes the islands have the unique potential to set an example of food and energy self-sufficiency, but she says it’s an area that requires the buy-in of multiple stakeholders and would be best coordinated by an organization specializing in these issues.

The islands show how both old and new technologies alike are important to food distribution, even in the often described high-tech, post-shipping container, globalized economy of today. Horses, ships, bicycles and human feet are all important modes of transport. The diversity of the island’s ways to feed itself could be a model for other communities seeking to build more reliable food systems. The islanders’ backyard gardens, for example, already set an example for other Istanbulites, many of whom may not have the physical resources nor see the necessity of growing their own food staples. With the introduction of innovative programs and community initiatives such as community-supported agriculture, the islands have the potential to set the bar high for the rest of Istanbul and promote their own self-sufficiency and long-term sustainability.

Posted in Istanbul