New York City: Put Down the Chicken, Pick up the Seitan!

There has ostensibly been a dialogue among New York City legislators around food, as seen through Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s Food Works resolution, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s (at the moment dormant) NYC Foodprint legislation, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s Blueprint for Sustainable Food System initiative. But there has yet to be a watershed policy that explicitly acknowledges and addresses the connection between “cool foods” and reducing the effects of climate change.

Food is a tremendous component of our global ecological footprint, specifically the livestock sector. With regards to anthropogenic green house gas (GHG) emissions, livestock production generates nine percent of the carbon, 65 percent of nitrous oxide, 37 percent of methane, and 64 percent of ammonia.

Cool foods, mainly plant-based foods (e.g., fruits, legumes, vegetables), require fewer GHG emissions to produce than animal-based foods (e.g., beef, poultry, dairy products). The livestock industry alone is responsible for 18 percent of global GHG emissions (including CO2, NO2, and methane)–more than the entire global transportation sector (to learn more, click here).

Given the apparent inertia in NYC to move legislation encouraging cool foods consumption, New York University’s Environmental Studies program dedicated one of its undergraduate senior Capstone Seminars to this very issue.

Led by Mia MacDonald, the Executive Director of the non-profit action think tank Brighter Green, we were among a group of nine students tasked with creating a set of policy recommendations for the aspirational client of the Mayor’s Initiative on Food and Climate Change, a yet uncreated programme out of the Mayor’s Office. In addition, a supplementary campaign and toolkit was designed to empower individuals and communities to increase cool foods in their diet with–and without–the support of the government.

The client remained “aspirational” in light of the omission of food issues in NYC’s 2007 PlaNYC report, a strategic framework to reducing NYC’s GHGs by 30 percent by 2030, while improving the economic, social, and environmental well-being of the city. That said, we were careful to be wary of the practical limitations faced by a city government.

By encouraging cool foods consumption, the hyper-urban NYC (the most populous in the States and among the most ethnically diverse in the world), has the potential to reduce the local and national carbon footprint while fostering a culture of cool foods consumption. With programs designed to reach various demographics, cool foods will be neither a fad nor a kitschy way of life for the wealthy, but a fundamental shift in how we understand the health of our bodies and planet.

After an extensive literature review of policies and campaigns designed by different municipalities around the world that were both related and unrelated to food issues, the students created the Eating for the Green Apple initiative.

We found that a purely top-down approach would not suffice; thus, an integral component was increasing education and awareness around cool foods. Additionally, programs increasing cool food consumption, working in tandem with food aid and welfare programs (e.g., NYC’s EBT program) can increase access of fresh fruits and vegetables to lower-income communities, leading to lower incidences of diet-related illnesses, increased workforce capacity, and improved academic performance.

Over the course of the three months, we designed a set of responsive strategies for NYC to reduce its GHG emissions.

  • Establish the Cool Foods Systems Assessment (CFSA) Task Force that will:

(1) Develop baseline measurements of New Yorkers’ animal-product consumption and the associated GHG emissions;
(2) Identify and assess differences, if they exist, in animal-product consumption amongst various cultural and socioeconomic demographics; and
(3) Identify opportunities to reduce animal-product consumption and/or associated GHG emissions, educate New Yorkers on the connection between diet and GHG emissions, and propose efficient and cost-effective recommendations to increase cool foods consumption.

  • Increase geographic and monetary access to cool foods in low income communities
  • Develop a public schools campaign that includes the promotion of wellness committees in public schools and the establishment of a NYC school-wide Meatless Mondays campaign to raise awareness and increase consumption of cool foods
  • Work through afterschool program and partnerships to increase awareness and consumption of cool foods

The proposed public awareness campaign consists of an interactive, user-friendly Web site containing several features including additional facts on cool foods, a recipe index, and a downloadable version of the toolkit; a poster series to be distributed throughout the city on subways, bus stands, and buses with photos of ethnically diverse New Yorkers a factoid about climate change and cool foods, and a link to the EGA Web site; and partnerships with grocery stores in various boroughs to help raise awareness and gauge levels of interaction with the campaign.

The toolkit includes a set of key actions New Yorkers can take to increase their cool foods consumption, including joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), cooking your own food, and talking to your grocers. Individuals can adopt and share these actions easily, and refer to the entire toolkit for further guidance and rationale. We also included a few New York University-specific actions to demonstrate how the toolkit can be tailored to specific institutions, communities, and organizations.

The final report is available for free download here.

New York City has an impressive track record when it comes to pushing through progressive and groundbreaking legislation, as well as orchestrating comprehensive initiatives for social causes. Take the stomach-churning but nonetheless memorable “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign posters and videos reminding New Yorkers to not “drink themselves sick” with soda and other sugary drinks. Or the mandate to restaurants and quick serve food outlets that make calories publicly available to post them on menus.

So what’s stopping NYC from taking on cool foods? EGA presents a realistic approach to address the clear and present need for addressing climate change through our dietary choices in New York City.

Image: Ariel Dubov

One thought on “New York City: Put Down the Chicken, Pick up the Seitan!

  1. When you see articles like this ask yourself have they written an article about grain fed animals e.g. feedlot beef, intensive piggeries, battery hen or does the person writing the article know the difference between this and a pasture system of production. Well grazed animals will add carbon to the soil and negate all the GHG. A crop production system will use far more GHGs then a pasture animal based system. Facts can be very distorting if you don’t know the difference.