NYC’s Bold Blueprint for Building a Better, Greener Food System

new york

Cities across the nation suffer from some of the same ills regarding poor quality food and inequitable distribution of healthy, fresh produce and other unprocessed foods. But New York City has a bold plan that could very well serve as a model for the rest of us.

Communities in every urban area include pockets or neighborhoods that have higher rates of diet related diseases than neighboring communities, little or no physical access to healthy, fresh foods, or lack of money to buy the fresh food that is available. Our broken food system contributes to our national health problems, but it’s also a huge contributor to climate change and other environmental problems. Additionally, employment in the food sector – whether you are a farmer, farmworker, or service industry worker – often means scraping by on less than a living wage and living without health care.

How do we fix our food system and reform it into something that actually serves us?

If we want to build a decentralized food distribution system that serves the people equally, the best way is to start at home with a clear vision and concrete policy recommendations. NYC’s model for a better food system, if adopted, could be replicated in other cities across the nation, creating jobs and providing better food for more people.

In February, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer released “FoodNYC: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Food System,” calling it “the most comprehensive effort to date to unify and reform New York City’s policies regarding the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food.” (The report was produced as a result of the New York City Food and Climate Summit held in December (09) in partnership with the non-profit Just Food.)

Of all the ideas presented, the blueprint chose to outline 10 bold ideas for the future. Cities everywhere take notice!

1. Urban Agriculture: Urban agriculture can reduce rainwater runoff and pollution, reduce the heat-island effect in cities, and absorb and sequester carbon. New York’s blueprint calls on the city to create a citywide urban Ag program that will identify land that is available for urban agriculture, such as vacant lots owned by the city, foster community gardens by giving them park status, and ease regulations and provide incentives to pave the way for green rooftops and other innovative urban farming programs.

2. Regional Food Production: Small regional farmers struggle to survive and compete with cheap overseas produce and heavily subsidized produce from industrial farms. When this happens, farmland dwindles and the farming population shrinks while urban consumers remain hungry for local foods. One task of the plan is to assess the capacity of a regional foodshed, facilitate connections among upstate farms and downstate consumers, and develop a long-term strategy towards preserving current farmland.

3. Food Processing and Distribution: When local food has to be shipped off somewhere else to be processed, it’s not really local food anymore. Relocalizing processing can create jobs along with a greener, more equitable food system. The plan recommends increasing distribution capacity of fresh, regional foods by expanding the existing Hunts Point Wholesale Produce Market and building other smaller wholesale produce markets in different areas of the city. Another recommendation is to invest public funds in local food processing plants.

4. New Markets: It’s all about access. Neighborhoods that have access to healthy, fresh foods suffer lower incidences of diet related diseases. The plan recommends fostering the development of non-traditional food outlets such as farmers’ markets by investing in increasing their capacity, offering long-term leases for public markets, and taking other actions that lower the barriers to increasing the number and type of alternative (non-grocery store) food venues in every neighborhood.

5. Procurement of Regionally grown Foods: Municipalities have huge buying power and can really move the needle toward change. By investing public money in community-based food, governments are creating jobs and bettering the health of local citizens. The recommendations focus on requiring publicly-funded schools, hospitals, senior centers, homeless shelters, and jails to mandate the purchase of regionally produced food.

6. Education: Kids don’t necessarily learn how to eat well at home, any more than they might learn algebra there. The blueprint recommends fostering lifelong good eating habits through requiring food curriculum in schools, exposing children to farms and gardens, and instituting meatless Mondays in New York City schools.

7. Food Waste: Rotting food creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The plan recommends that the city lower food waste by decreasing the amount of food that goes uneaten through better procurement practices and by investing in municipal and individual composting programs.

8. Plastic Water Bottles: We live in a country with safe tap water, yet plastic bottles remain ubiquitous and have terrible environmental consequences. In New York, only 10% of plastic water bottles are recycled. The blueprint recommends banning sales of bottled water on city property and encouraging the use of water canteens.

9. Food Economy: Food fares well even during a recession. Focus the city’s economic development strategy on food businesses, creating good jobs and better food at the same time, through zoning, kitchen incubators and other programs. The plan also calls on New York State to protect the rights of farmworkers.

10. Government Oversight: Everybody eats and we already know that food has huge environmental and personal health impacts. Why not give food its due and treat it like transportation, education, and sanitation by creating a Department of Food and Markets to oversee and lead the reform of the city’s food system? That’s what the panel recommends.

When faced with gigantic problems like creating a food system that works for everyone, it’s helpful to break down the issues into smaller parts and offer concrete recommendations that build a new vision, like this blueprint does. You can read the entire report here and then get involved in a food policy council near you. They have been springing up everywhere. This handy map provides a list of all food policy councils in your state.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: wwarby

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.