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What is the future of food in New York City? Quinn, DeBlasio, Weiner weigh in

2013 August 7
by admin

coauthored with Jody Dean–

The Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion is com­ing to a close and the search for a new mayor is in full swing. In addi­tion to the usual pol­icy ques­tions typ­i­cally raised dur­ing a may­oral race, the 2013 can­di­dates were offered an unprece­dented oppor­tu­nity to out­line their plat­forms on food policy.

The need for more resilient and sus­tain­able food pol­icy and infra­struc­ture for New York is well doc­u­mented, and is the sub­ject of a num­ber of food sys­tems and anti-hunger orga­ni­za­tions. Spear­headed by the Brook­lyn Food Coali­tion, the ground­break­ing “May­oral can­di­date forum on the future of food in New York City” was con­vened to engage the can­di­dates in a dis­cus­sion about food pol­icy as an “eco­nomic, health, envi­ron­men­tal and labor ini­tia­tive.” Through this forum, the pub­lic and over 1,000 atten­dees were able to hear the posi­tion of each may­oral can­di­date on issues related to food pol­icy, food access, and the future of food in New York. These top­ics, while essen­tial to the health and sta­bil­ity of the city, are fre­quently left out of may­oral debates or tied in with other issues, such as education.

Mayoral Candidate Forum

Of the nine declared can­di­dates, six attended the forum, mod­er­ated by Mar­ion Nes­tle, Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Nutri­tion, Food Stud­ies, and Pub­lic Health at New York Uni­ver­sity. The ques­tions posed to the can­di­dates fall under three ban­ners: healthy and sus­tain­able food for schools, expand­ing access to ser­vices and aid pro­grams (SNAP and WIC) and labor issues within the indus­try. The con­ver­sa­tion included a dis­cus­sion about how best to inte­grate a food pol­icy platform.

Hunger is a com­plex prob­lem and it is essen­tial that it is addressed on mul­ti­ple lev­els. Food avail­abil­ity, one impor­tant piece of com­bat­ting hunger, is an issue that impacts the entire eco­nomic and social sys­tem. Food access and uti­liza­tions are fac­tors cen­tral to strength­en­ing the links between food, com­mu­nity, health and eco­nom­ics under the purview of the mayor. Can­di­dates must think about the under­ly­ing fac­tors includ­ing socio-economic sta­tus that limit food acces­si­bil­ity, avail­abil­ity of resources, and allo­cate more fund­ing for social safety nets.

Accord­ing to Feed­ing Amer­ica, 2011 cen­sus data shows that the State of New York is 14.7% food inse­cure. Rate of food inse­cu­rity are higher, on aver­age, in the five bor­oughs: in Queens, 14% of  the pop­u­la­tion is food inse­cure.  In Man­hat­tan (Kings county) 20.4% and in Bronx, 23.3%.

NY Food Insecurity

All par­tic­i­pat­ing can­di­dates spoke about the SNAP pro­gram and noted the over­all pos­i­tive impact for par­tic­i­pants, though can­di­date John Cas­ti­ma­tidis men­tioned that he pre­ferred the WIC pro­gram, which he believed was less prone to fraud.

Sug­ges­tions to improve SNAP in the fol­low­ing ways were discussed:

1. Des­tig­ma­tize assisted food aid programs

2. Extend free meals  through the sum­mer and max­i­mize par­tic­i­pa­tion (a posi­tion advo­cated for by the Food Bank of New York)

3. Offer more oppor­tu­ni­ties for enroll­ment (and locations)

4. Increase the num­ber of ven­dors who can process SNAP (improve tech­nol­ogy in stores and bodegas)

Another area ripe for expan­sion is increased part­ner­ships with farm­ers mar­kets and CSAs to pro­mote con­sump­tion of fresh and sea­sonal fruits and veg­eta­bles.  Fur­ther, pro­grams like the Dou­ble Up Food Bucks (DUFB) pro­gram that matches money spent by SNAP par­tic­i­pants up to $20 per trans­ac­tion for the pur­chase of state-grown pro­duce. The pro­gram, already in place in Michi­gan, could be imple­mented in New York stores and farm­ers mar­kets. Many green mar­kets already accept EBT in New York and per­haps green carts can also be out­fit­ted with the tech­nol­ogy to do so.

Sev­eral can­di­dates, includ­ing Anthony Weiner and Bill De Bla­sio, spoke of appoint­ing food czars or deputy direc­tors of food pro­grams who work cross-sectorally to develop pro­grams and then part­ner with local groups like Just­food to mon­i­tor and eval­u­ate progress.

The food ser­vice indus­try is an essen­tial piece of the food econ­omy in New York and as such, the mil­lions of par­tic­i­pants must be respected and pro­tected to ensure safety of food and work­ers and fos­ter an inclu­sive com­mu­nity where food brings us together instead of mag­ni­fies the socioe­co­nomic divide. A large por­tion of the food ser­vice pop­u­la­tion can­not cur­rently afford suf­fi­cient food for them­selves or families.


Those seek­ing to improve the wages and well­be­ing of food work­ers must also acknowl­edge that a large pro­por­tion of food-service work­ers com­mute long dis­tances to work. The Gothamist illus­trates this fact with a map with cen­sus data to show just how long com­mutes to jobs in the City are for many work­ers. They reported that in Man­hat­tan, twice as many work­ers com­mute from another county (1.6 mil­lion) as live there (830,000). Time spent in tran­sit is time lost for wage earn­ings. The eco­nom­i­cally strat­i­fied city means that there are a very few peo­ple who work where they live.

Can­di­dates spoke of real estate changes that could help reduce the pro­por­tion of sales that go toward rent (John Cat­si­ma­tidis said that in New York it is close to 10 per­cent while in New Jer­sey it is merely 1.5 per­cent). Chang­ing this by increas­ing 80–20 hous­ing and mixed use real estate could rad­i­cally change the goods and ser­vices econ­omy. Other inter­ven­tions includ­ing the fol­low­ing can help in the short term:

1. Increase the min­i­mum wage. The Gen­eral Indus­try Min­i­mum Wage Act has set a $7.25 wage in many states, includ­ing New York. Accord­ing to can­di­date Sal Albanese, that is not liv­able wage.

2. Hire locally when pos­si­ble, develop neigh­bor­hood economies to sup­port food systems.

3. Increase edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties for indus­try workers.

While a food pol­icy plat­form was osten­si­bly the focus on the forum, not all of the can­di­dates address this issue directly within their cam­paigns. Rather than answer­ing the ques­tions about hunger, school food and the food econ­omy, many instead rolled these issues into other sec­tors of their cam­paign plat­forms, such as dis­plea­sure with Mayor Bloomberg’s pol­icy ini­tia­tives or reduc­ing the amount of money spent on healthcare.

This seems to indi­cate that despite the focus on food sys­tems pro­vided by the forum, the future of food in New York City may not yet be at the fore­front of the city’s polit­i­cal con­scious­ness.  His­tor­i­cally, the work around these issues has been car­ried by non-profits and com­mu­nity groups, and that trend is likely to con­tinue until city gov­ern­ment embraces the idea of devel­op­ing a more sus­tain­able and resilient food system.

On sev­eral occa­sions the can­di­dates spoke of the need for col­lab­o­ra­tion between gov­ern­ment, busi­ness and civil soci­ety. Food sys­tem gov­er­nance effi­ciency can be increased through hav­ing an open col­lab­o­ra­tion. Some can­di­dates spoke from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, includ­ing John Cat­si­ma­tidis, who is the owner of Grist­edes,  about the advan­tages of larger stores and chains. Oth­ers advo­cated for bode­gas and fresh carts to receive greater sub­si­dies and sup​port​.In all cases, it is impor­tant to sup­port the equi­table oper­a­tions of  a com­bi­na­tion of small mar­kets (and incu­ba­tor spaces, like  La Mar­queta  men­tioned by Chris­tine Quinn) and larger chains where sup­ply chains are clearly stated (i.e. Whole Foods).

Strate­gies for build­ing a more inte­grated and resilient food sys­tems will likely emerge when can­di­dates are pushed and held account­able. Mar­ion Nes­tle noted her “aston­ish­ment” that food was a tak­ing a pri­mary focus in the race, how­ever there is still a lot of work to be done in address­ing the under­ly­ing issues of access, health­ful­ness and expand­ing SNAP and WIC. The forum was a great occa­sion for dia­logue. More oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­cus­sion about food econ­omy, ecol­ogy, and polit­i­cal sys­tems are essen­tial for New York’s sus­tained health.

Links to each candidate’s cam­paign issues are available:

Chris­tine Quinn

John Cat­si­matides

Anthony Weiner

Sal Albanese

Bill De Blasio

John Liu

Bill Thomp­son

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