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Food Systems

by Hilary Papineau, Brooklyn Food Coalition


Last updated October 22, 2013 





Food policy in New York City is complex, driven by its intersections with many other policy issues including poverty, public health, sustainability, and economic development and justice.


Hunger is a major issue in NYC2.6 million New Yorkers struggle to feed themselves and their families, relying on a network of food pantries, community kitchens, and other emergency food resources.  1.8 million New Yorkers are on SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) and receive $147 in food stamps per month, $37 per week.   Many of NYC’s food access programs, including SNAP, are federally funded by the Farm Bill and Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, programs often at risk of budget cuts.  Current proposals threaten to cut SNAP by $4 – $20 billion.  Reducing administrative barriers to accessing public assistance programs is critical with only approximately 30% of income-eligible households able to access cash assistance, down from over 80% in 1995.


Many neighborhoods, and over 3 million New Yorkers, also face limited access to affordable fresh, healthy food, and suffer high rates of diseases related to a poor diet.  Many of these communities are located in the Bronx, Central and Eastern Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, and far Eastern Queens.  NYC has undertaken several initiatives to address this need, including the Health Bucks program where EBT customers get a $2 coupon for every $5 spent at Farmers Markets and the FRESH program which creates zoning and economic incentives to bring grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods.


Child hunger is also a serious problem, as 1 in 5 NYC youth rely on emergency food.  While NYC schools offer free breakfast to all students, the city has the lowest participation rate in the country, losing over 50 million federal dollars and negatively impacting students’ social development and academic outcomes as a result.  Research shows clear links between diet and academic performance.


Serving healthier school food also presents an opportunity to spur economic development.  Nationally, the Department of Education (DOE) is the second largest institutional purchaser of food in the country, second only to the U.S. military. In NYC, the DOE has taken steps to improve the healthfulness of school food by slowly adding local foods to school meals, including dairy products and select produce from New York State farms.  The Department is also slowly bringing salad bars and gardens to all schools, though the City has a long way to go before it is fully tapped into NY’s food economy.  It is recommended that the City procure 10%-20% of school food from local sources to institutionalize providing healthy, local food to city students.  Policy changes such as bringing back Menu Flexibility can empower parents to change individual items in schools’ menus and help facilitate healthier and culturally-sensitive school meals.


Economic development can also be achieved through supporting the City’s diverse community gardens and urban agriculture.  These initiatives are thriving in low income, under-served communities, bringing fresh food as well as cultural diversity and greater self-sufficiency to neighborhoods across the City.  These initiatives also support a regional food economy by linking upstate farms and downstate markets.  Expanding farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs, Green Carts, and Healthy Bodegas are other examples of food initiatives which drive the local food economy and increase access to fresh food in urban communities.  Developing food business incubators for small food businesses can further drive economic activity while improving access to healthy foods.


These efforts also tap into the City’s sustainability initiatives.  While agriculture is a critical component of the economy, industrial agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change with the transportation of processed foods across long distances and the release of methane from large-scale farming.  Fortunately for NY, the vast majority of New York farms are family-owned businesses and are, on average less than half the size of most farms on a national level.  Strengthening a regional food economy will help New York reduce its carbon footprint.  Banning the use of Styrofoam and recycling organic waste, as is being done in the current pilot program are additional steps the City is taking and may implement citywide.  On a statewide level, many call for a permanent ban of hydrofracking, a form of oil extraction, which the NYC Department of Environmental Protection deems incompatible with the water system and reports that a banning would help keep New York’s water and food safe.


Key Questions to Consider


How can City funds be allocated to provide support for and expand projects that increase access to healthy food, including farmers markets, urban farms, CSAs, emergency food gardens, and food coops, especially in communities with limited access to fresh food?


How can the distribution of produce grown by urban, local, and regional farmers be improved?  How can the City support wholesale farmers markets at Hunt’s Point and open markets in every borough?


How will the City increase the nutritional quality of school food, institutionalize this change, and give parents greater control of their children’s meals through this process?  Should the NYC Department of Education commit to 20% local sourcing of food products?


How can NYC’s public policy reward food companies poised for more business due to the demand for local food that promote transparency and good jobs in the food sector?


How can NYC better integrate food policies and foster stronger coordination among the various agencies who handle food?  What management structure best meets New York City’s unique needs?  Should there be an independent food systems council that uses a democratic and collaborative structure and process between the City, community organizations and citizens?


Resources for more information: NYC Advocacy Groups and Policy Initiatives




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