What New Yorkers Want from Their New Mayor When it Comes to Food

"We have to thank outgoing Mayor Bloomberg for raising consciousness about the health consequences of what we eat," Jan Poppendieck, a professor at Hunter College reminded foodies and food activists attending "The Future of Food Policy in the Post-Bloomberg Era." The event, which featured New York city grass roots food organizations such as Just Food, the Brooklyn Food Coalition, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and the New York City Community Garden Coalition took place at Talking Transitions, a huge glass enclosed "tent" in downtown Manhattan.

New York's incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio has been inviting public input there and offering the classic New York breakfast--bagels and cream cheese. These bagel klatches, dubbed "de Bagels with de Blasio" aim to promote dialogue between New Yorkers and the new administration, carrying forward the same open-door style that characterized de Blasio's work as Public Advocate--a clear contrast with Bloomberg's top down approach.

Bloomberg's most well-known innovation in the food sector was daring, but misfired. He correctly targeted supersized sodas as a major cause of mass obesity. But when he tried to ban them he met with strong public opposition.

"If instead of listening to the corn growers lobby, he had labeled soft drinks to show exactly how much high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) each drink contains, he could have empowered and educated people and enlisted their support in making healthier choices," says James S. Turner, Chairman of Citizens for Health. Several studies show that HFCS consumption is directly implicated in weight gain and obesity.

By seeking input and obtaining buy-in from the populace, de Blasio may have better luck than his predecessor even in the latter's chosen food arena. And there are many issues of concern about food for New Yorkers, including having enough of it.

"We must judge Bloomberg the way he says he wants to be judged-- by the data. When it comes to poverty, homelessness and hunger we've failed. One out of five children in NY live in food insecure homes-- homes where families cannot regularly put food on the table," said Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH.) "We have hunger, we have too much poverty and too much inequality of wealth. We have replaced opportunity capitalism with crony capitalism."

As participants in the Talking Transitions' food policy forum ate a free burrito lunch supplied by Chipotle, Poppendieck, a Professor of Sociology at Hunter's NYC Food Policy Center pointed out, "You are eating a universal free lunch--do you like it?"

"How would you feel if someone asked your annual income to find out whether or not you should pay a small fee for the meal?  That shared meal is then replaced by a sorting of the haves and have nots. This stigmatizes both the kids receiving the meal and the food itself."

School sponsored universal free breakfasts remove the stigma and assure that kids begin the day right. "To be well read, you must be well fed," noted Berg. "Instead of treating poverty as a crime, the new Mayor could use school meals and SNAP (food stamp benefits) to help eliminate hunger."

From community gardens to composting, from reserving prime upstate agricultural lands for a sustainable regional food shed to upgraded nutrition, these and many more ideas surfaced at the panel discussion (and subsequent break out sessions). Kady Ferguson, executive director of the Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC), pointed out that the right food initiatives confer multiple benefits: Eliminating hunger, improving nutrition and health, while simultaneously creating jobs and boosting New York's economy.

"Upstate farmers need downstate consumers to buy the foods they grow while downstate residents need farmers to supply them with healthy food at lower costs," noted Nancy Romer, the chair of the BFC Governance Board and an organizer of the NYC Food Forum. "If the city builds infrastructure, programs and jobs that promote upstate agriculture and support both downstate and upstate employment, the City could ask for reciprocity--for instance by asking the state to increase the income tax on wealthier New Yorkers."

At present, due to low wages, food workers often use SNAP benefits, says Diana Robinson, Campaign and Education Coordinator, of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. She proposes both raising the minimum wage to a level applicable to the higher cost of living in New York-- and including "tip" workers, who are currently excluded from minimum wage provisions.

"The city could also rewrite contract codes to favor businesses with fair labor practices. That would increase worker compensation in food services," proposed Romer.

With initiatives like these, is it possible for a major metropolis like New York to become a model for a more human-centric infrastructural recalibration?  Now that New York has a willing mayor, that question will be put to the test.  "There are a host of groups and organizations that have been working for twenty years to lift up the issues of inequality of wealth and opportunity into the political arena. Now they are ready to advance new programs and agendas," said The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Talking Transitions culminates in a Town Hall style meeting November 23, 2013. (See schedule for upcoming events and locations here.)

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