Can progressive food and climate change policy and programs in the U.S.’ largest city begin with a “whereas”? New York may be about to find out. In 2009, a then-member of New York’s city council agreed to support a “Resolution to Reduce NYC’s Climate ‘Foodprint’” drafted by organizations with varied priorities but a shared rationale: Food and agriculture are significant contributors to global warming. New York City (NYC) could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, at the same time, create a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food landscape for its eight million residents.
The resolution called for the launch of Foodprint NYC, a “city-wide initiative that would establish climate-friendly food policies and programs, financial and technical support, a public awareness campaign regarding the city’s food consumption and production patterns and greater access to local, fresh, healthy food.”
The New York City Foodprint Alliance, initiators of the resolution, was formed by groups working on food justice, climate change, hunger, urban farms, community gardens, and animal welfare, and included the public policy action tank I run, Brighter Green, along with Just Food, the Small Planet Institute, Farm Sanctuary, and WhyHunger.
At that time, neither food nor agriculture figured in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious PlaNYC designed to reduce the city’s GHGs by 30 percent by 2030. GreeNYC, a linked effort, encouraged New Yorkers to lower their ecological footprints by, for instance, signing up for paperless bank statements or using environmentally friendly cleaning products. But it didn’t say anything about “foodprints.”
Other New York City elected officials were, however, demonstrating an interest in food and agriculture, sensing them moving up voters’ list of priorities. Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer (now the city’s controller-elect) and council speaker and 2013 mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn both issued food policies; Stringer’s linked food and climate change and called on the city council to adopt a Foodprint resolution.
And on a hot July day in 2009, that city council member organized a press conference to introduce the Foodprint resolution on the steps of City Hall. The New York Times took note. Now that person—Bill de Blasio—is New York City’s mayor-elect.
De Blasio said that he’d champion the Foodprint. He recorded a video in support of it and urged fellow council members to join him as co-sponsors. While the resolution garnered a respectable number of co-sponsors, the full council never voted on it. De Blasio was running then to be the city’s public advocate (an election he won), so perhaps didn’t give it the priority we’d anticipated. Or perhaps Foodprint was ahead of its time.
Members of the Foodprint Alliance had agreed on a core set of facts included in the resolution text as clauses beginning with “whereas:” one-third of global greenhouse gases are produced by agriculture and land use changes; the livestock sector is a significant contributor to global climate change; U.S. foods typically travel nearly 2,500 miles from farm to table; and the city’s low-income communities, where chronic, diet-related diseases are common, could benefit from more access to healthy, fresh, locally grown produce.
We also wrote a policy primer that enumerated what the city council could do once it adopted the Foodprint resolution like, for example, supporting urban agriculture; expanding green jobs through new community gardens, city farms, and investing in the regional foodshed; and shifting city procurement toward climate-friendly foods. Plus, we created a fact sheet offering ideas for how New Yorkers could shrink their individual foodprints, like joining a CSA and reducing or eliminating consumption of animal-based foods.
Foodprint seeded other efforts. Students I taught in New York University’s environmental studies program used it to craft “Eating for the Green Apple,” a set of ideas for policy changes and a public education campaign, including eye-catching subway ads about food and climate change.
Four years on, De Blasio doesn’t seem to have forgotten the Foodprint. In July 2013, a number of New York City food and anti-hunger groups, including some from the Foodprint Alliance, sponsored the first-ever mayoral candidates’ forum on food. De Blasio was the only candidate who spoke about global warming and sustainability when answering moderator Marion Nestle’s questions. (I’d shared the Foodprint with his staffers before the forum.)
Some political observers see de Blasio shaping a “values-based” mayoralty. While he hasn’t yet tipped his hand about how his administration will work on food and agriculture or climate change, the concerns and aspirations that animated the Foodprint project are as relevant now as they were then, and maybe even more so.
Worry about the risks to food security posed by climate change is rising quickly up the international agenda. The drought in the U.S. Midwest in 2012 got the attention of food and farm researchers and policy-makers, who worry it won’t be an anomaly. The policy environment may be more conducive now, too.
U.S. and international food and climate change advocates are—slowly—exploring a common agenda. Berkeley, Seattle, Baltimore, San Francisco, and even New York City are expanding composting, school gardens, rooftop farms, and supporting Meatless Mondays.
Could the Foodprint contribute to a visionary de Blasio initiative that brings together food justice and sustainability, green jobs and greener eating, public health and equity, climate change and urban agriculture? Well, why not? After all, de Blasio was eager to introduce the Foodprint resolution—and agenda—to the city council and did it with conviction (take a look at de Blasio’s video). Those of us revisiting the Foodprint project now don’t want to let him forget it.