Yesterday at Columbia University, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer hosted a conference entitled “The Politics of Food,” which he called New York’s next policy challenge. Stringer is known for his work paving the way for better health in East Harlem, and for the Go Green East Harlem Cookbook, a bilingual guide that is available free of cost to East Harlem residents. Sounding like Michael Pollan, he recognized that so many issues, from health, to energy, to environment all dealt with food in some way. So it was his goal, he said, to create a Food Charter for New York, based on community-oriented plans brought to scale.
Among the speakers was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recognized that protecting the health of its citizens was the number one priority of a city. Bloomberg has successfully banned trans fats in restaurants, as well as smoking, and has passed legislation requiring the listing of calories on menus. His next tough food policy, he told us, was taking on the salt content of processed food. But he also wasn’t too shy to admit that he likes some junk food too. “You’ve got to be addicted to something,” he said. “Coffee and Cheez-Its, what’s wrong with that?”
UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto gave a rousing speech, calling for the end to the dominance of large corporate food entities like Monsanto, McDonalds and Wal-Mart. “In food politics, I would advocate food democracy,” he said. “We can move our food provisioning away from dominance by a few very large corporations to the control of people-oriented food systems that respect communities and their right to food sovereignty, and localized and regionalized food systems at the local and regional levels.”
He reminded us that hunger and poverty are realities for many New Yorkers. The most moving part of his speech came when he said that “we must stop deluding ourselves and face up to the fact that the ‘haves’ of this world must change their way of life, the patterns of consumption that show little or no regard for the disastrous impact of their lifestyle on the well being of their neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and our shared home, the planet Earth.”
Maya Wiley from the Center for Social Inclusion spoke next, and reminded us that “policies matter dramatically.” She gave a few facts: New York is #1 on the inequality index. Communities of color make up 62% of New Yorkers, and are more likely to suffer from food related health problems and less likely to have a residential supermarket. She addressed the affordability of fruits and vegetables, saying “its not that food prices are too high, its that wages are too low.” At the end of her speech she urged us to act, suggesting we take a shovel, a checkbook, or a pen in one hand, and take someone else’s hand in the other.
There were seven sessions to address specific issues facing different parts of the food agenda, in which experts could come together and give their input. The sessions included From Field to Market: A Blueprint for Food Distribution in New York City, Finding Healthy Food: Supermarkets, Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and Food Deserts, The Importance of Nutrition Education, Urban Farming: What Does It Look Like? What Makes It Work?, How Schools, Hospitals, and Other Institutions Can Serve Healthier Meals, Recession’s Consequences for the Food Safety Net, and The Urban Food Agenda: Shaping City, State, and Federal Policy. After the sessions, the conference goers regrouped and a summary was presented of what was gleaned from each session.
Scott Stringer gave closing remarks, assuring those present that this was not the end of the discussion, and promised that this was a top priority for him.
Overall I was surprised by how much awareness the city has of the issues facing our food system. It is my hope that New York can become a model for other cities in land use, including sustainable urban gardening, in providing good school and hospital food, in creating equal opportunities for access to vegetables and in nutrition education and inspiring people to cook again. While the process has been bottom up until now, maybe with better policy-making, we can meet with city government somewhere in the middle.
Photo: Kevin Matteson, Mapes Avenue Community Garden in the Bronx