NYC Announces Comprehensive Assessment of Urban Food Systems

“Too often we allow food issues to be pushed to the fringe of public policy,” admitted New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, in announcing the creation of “FoodWorks New York.” This initiative is the first attempt by the city government to implement a comprehensive assessment of the urban food system. Quinn’s objective? To capitalize on opportunities for job growth while ameliorating environmental and health failings.

Quinn took advantage of the media presence at an event to promote the FRESH supermarket program. With $10 million of New York State funds earmarked to assist the financing of new markets in under serviced neighborhoods, the FRESH supermarket program is one aspect of the Governor Paterson’s Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative. For Quinn, and in time perhaps for NYC, the event marked a turning point in the discourse on local food policy.

Quinn began with a series of queries to the audience, crafting a hypothetical solution to citywide problems ranging from unemployment to health concerns and positing FoodWorks as the solution. She outlined five ambitious program goals:

1. Improve city infrastructure
2. Create new and better jobs in the food industry
3. Keep more local food dollars in the local economy
4. Reduce diet related diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes
5. Reduce environmental damage from the production, transport, and consumption of food

Enlivening statistics on the city’s food industry with anecdotal evidence, Quinn emphasized the plethora of benefits that may result from policy reform. She noted that, “Food sales and services in the five boroughs constitute a $30 billion market, but only 2% of the fruits and vegetables coming through the Hunts Point produce market are grown in New York State.”

Quinn uses romaine lettuce as an example of opportunity lost. City contracts for romaine are increasing with the proliferation of salad bars in urban schools. According to Quinn, romaine is imported from California and Maryland despite an abundant crop in New York. Absent a regional processing facility to cut, clean, and bag the lettuce, the city will continue with its out-of-state contracts. Romaine is just one illustration of the potential of food as a commodity; making use of existing manufacturing facilities, generating jobs, fueling the local economy, and mitigating agriculture’s senseless carbon footprint.

Quinn wants to bolster the Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative and work to alleviate food deserts, ramp up the food stamp program as well as the Department of Health’s Women, Infant and Children program. In addition, she is proposing legislation that will purportedly prioritize local food producers by expanding farmers’ markets, CSA programs, and encouraging industry to buy local. Specific environmental amendments intend to stimulate composting, foster urban gardens, and focus on rail improvements. What leverage and incentives Quinn will employ are unknown.

Details on FoodWorks New York are still under consideration. Over the next several months, the City Council plans to collaborate with, “experts from government, industry, labor and academia, as well as hunger and environmental advocates and community leaders.” A program outline is expected in the spring.

Does your city or township have a food policy? If so, what can you tell us about it? What measures would you like to see included in FoodWorks New York?

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.

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