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Food policy for breakfast

2014 September 10

Worker loading apples at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (Photo: NYC SIRR)


“One of the least-known but most impor­tant rit­u­als in New York takes place every night in the South Bronx at the Hunts Point Food Dis­tri­b­u­tion Cen­ter. There, in strik­ing abun­dance, del­i­ca­cies from around the state, coun­try, and the world are bought and sold—cabbage from New York, oranges from Cal­i­for­nia, blue­ber­ries from Chile, bell pep­pers from the Nether­lands, beef from Aus­tralia, and fish from Nova Sco­tia.” –– Open­ing descrip­tion in the ‘Crit­i­cal Net­works’ Chap­ter of the NYC Spe­cial Ini­tia­tive on Rebuild­ing and Resiliency report.

Food secu­rity and pub­lic health are at the heart of the issue of cli­mate change. Johanna Goet­zel fol­lows the sub­ject with a recent talk held at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Center.

Cli­mate change impacts the food sys­tem, glob­ally and locally. Tues­day morn­ing, at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York (CUNY) Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, a panel of aca­d­e­mics and busi­ness lead­ers explored the impacts of food acces­si­bil­ity and deliv­ery in NYC in a far reach­ing ses­sion called Cli­mate Change, Food and Health: From Analy­sis to Action to Pro­tect Our Futures.

Mod­er­ated by Nicholas Freuden­berg, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Pub­lic Health, CUNY School of Pub­lic Health & Hunter Col­lege, and Fac­ulty Direc­tor, NYC Food Pol­icy Cen­ter at Hunter Col­lege, the dis­tin­guished pan­elists included Nevin Cohen, Asst. Pro­fes­sor, Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies, The New School; Mia Mac­Don­ald, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Brighter Green; Mark Ize­man, Direc­tor, New York Urban Pro­gram and Senior Attor­ney, Urban Pro­gram, National Resource Defense Coun­cil (NRDC)

Mia Mac­Don­ald began by speak­ing about the eco­log­i­cal and pub­lic health reper­cus­sions of the “global spread of US-style con­sump­tion.” One solu­tion she offered was ‘cool foods,’ those that are less energy inten­sive to grow and transport.

Mark Ize­man spoke about the dan­gers of sea level rise on the Hunts Point food dis­tri­b­u­tion hub. As the largest food dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter in the world, the increas­ing fre­quency and inten­sity of cli­mate change events like Hur­ri­cane Sandy will have sig­nif­i­cant impacts on the population’s well being. Address­ing these con­cerns and other resilience efforts, the Hunts Point Life­line project pro­posal offers an avenue for sus­tain­able future developments.

Pan­elists also dis­cussed trans­porta­tion strat­egy for the 5–7 mil­lion tonnes of food that enter NYC, 95% over the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge.  Nevin Cohen empha­sized the impor­tance of inter­de­part­men­tal coor­di­na­tion (trans­porta­tion, san­i­ta­tion, health) to address the entire ecosys­tem of food.

Since the bench­mark recy­cling law of 1989, mak­ing New York the first state to enact a pol­icy,  only min­i­mal progress has been made in state-wide com­post­ing pro­grams. This pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to ele­vate Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Food Print” pro­pos­als to reduce waste at mul­ti­ple points in the food sys­tem. Local efforts can be made in sup­port­ing farm­ers mar­kets, the major­ity of which accept EBT/food stamps.

Atten­dance at the talk was high and the dis­cus­sion was robust, offer­ing numer­ous solu­tions for greater involve­ment. One mes­sage that res­onated was the need to update meth­ods of advo­cacy. All were invited to par­tic­i­pate in the Peo­ples Cli­mate March Sep­tem­ber 21. The next dis­cus­sion in the Food Pol­icy for Break­fast series will be held Octo­ber 14, about food pro­vided in New York uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges. The rip­ple effects of local con­ser­va­tion efforts and per­sonal com­mit­ments to eat­ing bet­ter can have global impacts on the resources threat­ened by cli­mate change.


CliMates trains student climate negotiators in NYC

2014 September 2

CliMates participants meet French climate diplomat Adrien Pinelli at the French Mission to the UN (Ph: CliMates)

Born out of exas­per­a­tion at the slow pace of inter­na­tional progress on cli­mate change, the French-based group Cli­Mates pro­vides par­tic­i­pa­tion and train­ing to young peo­ple who want to help push for­ward for solutions.

This Fri­day, August 29th con­cluded the Sec­ond Cli­Mates Inter­na­tional Sum­mit, hosted at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity. Orga­nized by vol­un­teers and peer lead­ers, this gath­er­ing of stu­dents and young pro­fes­sion­als from over 15 nations focused on build­ing skills and train­ing atten­dees to dis­cuss the impacts of cli­mate change in var­i­ous sec­tors. Their mis­sion is to inspire and empower youth all around the world to find answers together.

Co-founder Mar­got Le Guen shared how the net­work has evolved since 2011 from a “group of peers at Sci­ence Po, in France, where we were reach­ing out to our friends to join to what is now a group of over 150 actively involved.”

Last year, Cli­Mates held a Latin American-focused gath­er­ing in Bogota, Colum­bia. This year’s events took the form of a ‘sum­mer school’ in New York City, where par­tic­i­pants attended sem­i­nars and engaged in dis­cus­sions on every­thing from entre­pre­neur­ship for social inno­va­tion, to craft­ing per­for­mance art, to the impacts of heat on health. A spe­cial dis­cus­sion lead by Ahmad Alhen­dawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, empha­sized the need to think about what moti­vates poten­tial part­ners to engage. The team also met with French cli­mate diplo­mat Adrien Pinelli, who spoke about the role of youth engage­ment in the upcom­ing COP 21 con­fer­ence held in Paris in 2015.

I had the plea­sure of speak­ing on a panel about cli­mate and health with Kim Knowl­ton, Senior Sci­en­tist, Health & Envi­ron­ment Pro­gram and Co-Deputy Direc­tor of the Nat­ural Resources Defense Coun­cil.  Dr. Knowl­ton and I pre­sented on how ris­ing tem­per­a­tures will impact poor­est pop­u­la­tionsmost dra­mat­i­cally and explored eco­nomic and social solu­tions for prevention.

The over­all tone of the sum­mit was one of excite­ment and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Atten­dees shared ideas for research col­lab­o­ra­tion, expand­ing part­ner­ships and plan­ning for next year, when the sum­mit will be held in France, gear­ing up for the world’s crit­i­cal test: the 2015 United Nations Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Paris. The announced aims of the 2015 UN con­fer­ence are noth­ing less than a bind­ing, world­wide agree­ment to limit green­house gases.

In the next month, UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki Moon will host a pre­lude to the 2015 con­fer­ence, at the United Nations in New York City on Sep­tem­ber 23rd. This pre­lim­i­nary meet­ing of world lead­ers is the focus of the People’s Cli­mate March, sched­uled for Sep­tem­ber 21st, which is draw­ing an increas­ing amount of media and insti­tu­tional attention.

For more infor­ma­tion on Cli­Mates and their social media pres­ence, fol­low them on Twit­ter and see their YouTube chan­nel. Below, watch Austin Mor­ton of the New Cli­mate Econ­omy project in his video for the Cli­Mates summit.

Weighing in on Waste: Leveraging Markets for Health

2014 June 13

By Johanna Goetzel and Jody Dean

It would come as no surprise to most that what we eat has impacts on the plant and population health, however what we don’t eat also matters. When we discard food we lose valuable energy in the form of calories, waste the energy that went into production and transport and increase food costs through lost value.  In continued support for last week’s World Environment Day, we can link our food and consumer markets to improve health.

In the US we discard approximately 40% of the total food produced. This is equivalent to 20 lbs of food each month, or $2,275 a year of unconsumed food for a family of four.  Additionally, food waste now accounts for more than 25% of total freshwater consumption and about 4% of total US oil consumption.  The climate impacts of food waste were acknowledged by New York City Mayor de Blasio, who signed a resolution to reduce the City’s climate “foodprint.”

In parallel with the trends in waste, 46.2 million people are currently living in poverty, which is the leading cause of hunger.  This makes wasted food an even greater problem, as discarded food could have been used to meet food demand. Addressing hunger in the United States can therefore become part of larger program to reduce wasted food, energy consumption and dollars.

This connection between waste and hunger creates opportunities to tackle both issues from an entrepreneurial standpoint. One such Boston based initiative, Spoiler Alert, attempts to leverage this connection through a mobile software platform that provides real-time information on supply and demand for excess, expiring and spoiled food. This venture not only has the ability to reduce waste and address food insecurity, but also to create new revenue streams by bringing together all stakeholders in the food-supply chain.

Multinational corporations such as Walmart have also found creative ways to turn waste into value. In line with their zero waste program, Walmart has expanded their waste reduction initiatives to include not just recycling and food donations, but also a waste diversion program that transforms used cooking oil into biofuel.

These innovative cross-sector collaborations can stimulate markets to favor healthier lifestyles, improve the environment and foster sustainable practices, effectively creating a “win-win”approach to health promotion.  

Power down to power up: Screen-Free Week 2014

2014 June 4

May 5-11 is this year’s national Screen-Free Week, encouraging everyone to turn off digital entertainment and turn on life. At work, trends of increased sedentary behavior have proven negative health impacts but a screen-free philosophy can encourage regular breaks, improving your concentration and your health.

Since 1970, Americans work an additional 200 hours per year, translating to more hours in chairs and in front of screens. Both of these ‘risk factors’ contribute to the growing weight of the nation.

Dr. Wilmot, a research fellow at the University of Leicester, found that people with the highest sedentary behavior had a 112 per cent increase in their relative risk of developing diabetes; a 147 per cent increase in their risk for cardiovascular disease; and a 49 percent greater risk of dying prematurely — even if they regularly exercised.

According to research by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) employers incur large costs from their obese employees, between USD $644- 2,500, per person per year. Companies are now reevaluating metrics for financial success and worker productivity, investing in their office environments to promote health.

A fun way to take a break, for physical and mental well-being can be to follow the lead of Dr. Yancey, professor of health services at UCLA who advocates for group exercise breaks and a simple workout that can be done at work. Studies show that these can reduce sick leave and workers’ compensation claims. As an employer, investing in well-being leads to productivity increases, with absenteeism costs falling by about $2.37 for every dollar spent.

Power down to power up and take a moment to move away from screens this week.

Source: Washington Post Workout at Work Poster (

Top Questions in Nutrition (Part II)

2014 April 1

coauthored with Elle Alexander–

To wrap up Nutrition Awareness Month, here is the second half of this blog post, answering questions 6-10:

  1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?
  2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?
  3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?
  4. Is yogurt a health food?
  5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?
  6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?
  7. Where in the world does our food come from?
  8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?
  9. The other, other white meat?
  10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?

The WHO has warned that marketing fast food to kids has been “disastrously effective,” and has ultimately directly contributed to the global obesity epidemic. The American Academy of Pediatric recommends that children and teenagers never consume energy drinks, citing high levels of sugar and caffeine as unhealthy for children while providing no nutritional benefits. In spite of that, Yale University Rudd Center reports that 31% of American youth (age 12-17) consume energy drinks, many of which have on average more sugar than soda and are not required to disclose information on caffeine content.

7. Where in the world does our food come from?

Tracing our food items from production to consumption helps to understand where things really come from. Sourcemap visually displays the journey of products, with some examples having no less than 16 stopovers from source to shelf.

Where Tropicana Comes From (Source: SourceMap)

8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?

Brazil has introduced new food based countrywide guidelines, now open for comment, to promote health.  The rules they propose can be applied to the US and other countries:

  • Make foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals the basis of your diet.
  • Be sure oils, fats, sugar and salt are used in moderation in culinary preparations.
  • Limit the intake of ready-to-consumer products and avoid those that are ultra-processed.

9. The other, other white meat?

Fish are a tremendous source of protein and consumption is growing; to meet the demand in the US means importing 91% of the aquaculture. NOAA address questions about healthy eating and sustainability best practices. Concerns about health, safety and global ecology all come to play when eating fish and equally important is purchasing seafood from reliable sources. Greenpeace ranks retailers based on environmental practices.

10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

Food companies are shifting their portfolios to address the regulatory pressure and consumer interest in healthier items. Smaller portion sizes of classic items can be seen in stores and stealth strategies include product reformulation to reduce sodium or replace refined flour with whole grains, or developing ingredients to increase satiety and flavor without the calories (read more about these trends here). Interestingly, the Hudson Institute found that food and beverage companies with more sales of healthier products were more financially successful than companies with lower sales of healthier items.

When addressing these questions it is essential to consult credible sources, investigate credentials of authors, and recognize source bias.

A few of our current favorite places for nutrition updates are below – or just check back here for future posts on the subject!

Top Questions in Nutrition (Part I)

2014 March 11

coauthored with Elle Alexander–

March kicks off national nutrition awareness month, a great opportunity to feed our curiosity. With that in mind, we curated some of the top 10 questions around nutrition, and will share five now and five at the end of the month.

  1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?
  2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?  
  3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?
  4. Is yogurt a health food?
  5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?
  6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?
  7. Where in the world does our food come from?
  8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?
  9. The other, other white meat?
  10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?

There has been much discussion on high fructose corn syrup vs. cane sugar from health and environmental perspectives. Marion Nestle sheds some light on the debate:

“Sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain the same sugars—glucose and fructose—and do much the same things in the body.  I think everyone would be better off eating a lot less of either.”

2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?

When presented with numerous food choices, people tend to pile plates high with calories.   Choosing smaller plates helps to reduce calorie intake since people tend to stop eating based on visual cues rather than internal satiety cues.

See Brian Wansink’s “Bottomless Soup Bowl” Experiment:

3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?

In November of 2013, the FDA banned trans-fat, a decision that many – including the Scientific American – considered long overdue and with an impact of saving lives at a minimal cost to industry. Decisions to eat healthier are easier for consumers when information about health and a variety of healthy options are available.

Further work is also needed to reduce sodium intake in the US population, as only 5% of intake is added during cooking and 6% at the table; 75% is from packaged foods.  Companies must take the lead to reduce sodium in packaged foods for consumers while ensuring food safety and taste.

4. Is yogurt a health food?

For hundreds of years humans have consumed yogurt across cultures. The protein rich and bacteria filled product has experienced a renaissance of sorts since the 1900s and with the mass popularization of “Greek” yogurts. A New Yorker article in November documented the growth of Chobani; the recipe is modified for consumer enjoyment, including added sweeteners in many products. The benefits of yogurt include probiotics, calcium and a hearty dose of non-animal based protein.

5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?

According to the CDC, portion sizes have increased, impacting health. There are new devices on the market to help guide consumers toward eating ‘recommended’ quantities, including the Silo which pours 1 cup, 1/2 cup or 1 tsp. There is also a recent proposal to the FDA to make the Nutrition Facts label easier for consumers to understand, highlighting calories, recalibrating serving sizes and including added sugars:

Nutrition Label Redesign

Stay tuned for the next installment at the end of the month. Your thoughts are welcome!

– See more at:

Navigating Nutrition in a Landscape of Excess

2014 February 17

Change is hard– especially behavior change in a context not designed to support it.  New Year’s resolutions, like those mentioned by Taubes in his New York Times Sunday Review piece, are usually forgotten. It isn’t just that they are ambitious. The problem is that we live in an environment where healthy choices are challenged by increasingly cheap, ubiquitous and tasty treats.

For example, twenty years ago, a typical cheeseburger contained 333 calories, compared to 590 today. According to a new FDA report pizza also accounts for 4% of all calories consumed by American adults daily. Additionally, our lifestyles are more sedentary–average Americans spend nearly nine hours in front of screens.

NavigatingNutrition Feb14 cdc-new-abnormal-infographic

Source: CDC, “Making Health Easier” (click image to enlarge)

Together, our diet and lack of physical activity put us at risk for lifestyle-related diseases, like hypertension, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Addressing these requires efforts from multiple sectors as health is affected by everything from policies set by governments, to products developed and marketed by companies, and corporate policies impacting employee health. The argument of ‘willpower’ falls away when powerful outside forces act in concert.  

We are more likely to consume more calories when we eat outside the home. According to the USDA in 2012, more than 40% of meals in America are eaten away from home and 82% of adults eat out at least once a week. Fundamentally changing the foods offered at restaurants can improve the food landscape and promote health. Efforts led by the Culinary Institute of America in partnership with Harvard’s School of Public Health are underway to develop Menus of Change. Consumers want more vegetable options, lean meats, and seafood, and Menus of Change is updating menus to give it to them.

A complementary initiative is Grow Your Family Strong, whose mission is to encourage mindful cooking at home by providing nutritious recipes, shopping lists and most importantly, support from other participants in building healthy meals for their families. Founder Monique Nadeau says “We need practical ideas that are simple to execute, automate and delegate; are value for money, nutritious and include meals our families will enjoy. I’m looking for something that makes my life easier and my family healthier.”

If making a change is hard, maintaining it is even more challenging. New technology, like Stickk can help individuals make ‘commitment contracts’ to a healthier lifestyle. Participants use the WebApp to publicize their commitments to quit smoking, eat healthier and exercise more frequently and then receive support from an online community. Building a community through health technology is an effective way to achieve personal goals.

Finally, addressing short-termism – where consumers tend to discount the future impacts of their decisions for immediate comfort or pleasure – can be built into polices and private sector commitment to health. For example, there is an opportunity to make healthier foods more affordable and accessible at point of sale. A few pilot programs, including Healthy Food Here, are making it easier (and cost effective) for retailers to provide fresh produce. Resolving to eat well and a landscape of support go together like (low-fat) milk and (wholegrain) cookies.

SNAP to Action on Health

2014 January 31

In President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this week, he commended the First Lady’s efforts to get Americans, and particularly children, moving.  The Let’s Move campaign combines getting active with healthy eating and is a great example of partnerships between the US government, NGOs, and industry.  Additional collaborations are needed to promote healthy eating in federally supported programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The Farm Bill was omitted from Tuesday night’s address despite being a key to the future of agriculture, food and health in America.

SNAP blog post 30jan14 - farm bill graph

Graph (click to enlarge) created by Brad Plumer, The Washington Post, January 28, 2014.

The majority of spending of the Farm Bill – nearly 80%, or $756 billion – is allocated to support nutrition and food security for low income Americans (see graph), although the funding does not explicitly support healthy eating or nutrition for recipients.   Improving the SNAP programs is an occasion for the US government to codify the link between agriculture production and healthy food consumption.

Importantly, shifts in diets could reduce the burden of disease and chronic disability which now account for nearly half of the US health burden.  Improving availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help replace high-calorie, highly processed foods with less energy intensive production.  It is also important to understand the relationship – or lack thereof – between subsidies and crop insurance support and retail costs of the healthiest foods

Land use for farming is not currently driven by health indicators. Harvard School of Public Health calculates that it required about 40 acres of farmland to produce 1,000 kilograms (approx. 2,200 pounds)  of ground beef while only 3/4 of an  acre to produce the same quantity of potatoes and even less — 1/16 of an acre to grow 1,000 kilograms of carrots.  The Farm Bill should support the production of more sustainable protein sources over energy intensive meat production. Further, by subsidizing fruits and vegetables instead of grain, corn and soy used predominantly for animal feed, the Farm Bill can be an effective lever to reduce the quantity of highly processed foods going to market and concurrently reduce the ecological footprint of the food system.

There is a tremendous opportunity to improve SNAP to help guide healthier food decisions.  Additionally, bolstering Michelle Obama’s efforts for healthier children, SNAP-Ed can complement the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program helping children form healthy habits early in life. The road ahead to reforming SNAP and revising the Farm Bill may by rocky, but shifts to promote health will benefit all and result from businesses, government, and local organizations supporting healthy and cost effective food choices promoting health.  Let’s get moving on this together.